Eating disorders are extremely challenging and painful illnesses, and treatment can be complicated and involve a team of professionals in order to successfully address the different aspects of the condition.
The typical goals of eating disorder treatment are to bring an individual back to a healthy weight, to reduce excessive exercise, to stop bingeing and purging behaviors, to restore regular and nutritious eating habits and to address co-occurring mental health concerns. With so many goals, multiple specialists are often brought in to manage the different aspects of the patient’s health.
Physical Health Consequences Can Be Serious
One of the reasons that eating disorders are so complicated to treat is that although they are mental illnesses, they can have serious consequences for a person’s physical health. Anorexia nervosa, and to a slightly lesser extent bulimia nervosa, can result in serious physical complications, starting with dangerously low body weight and including heart problems, digestive problems, bone loss, gum disease and anemia.
As a result of physical health complications, eating disorder patients may require treatment in a hospital or other in-patient facility, or careful oversight from a physician as they get their health back on track. Just getting patients back to a stable condition and making sure that they are not in danger of sudden death or long-term health consequences is often the first step of eating disorder treatment.
The role of the physician in eating disorder treatment can begin even before the official diagnosis has been made. Parents and doctors are on the front lines when it comes to recognizing disordered eating habits and physical or psychological symptoms that could suggest the presence of an eating disorder. They should take the necessary steps to confirm their suspicions (which involves getting an official diagnosis) and get the person into treatment.
Treating Co-Occurring Mental Illnesses Key to Full Recovery
Another factor that frequently complicates eating disorder treatment is the presence of comorbid mental illness such as depression or anxiety. Unless these co-occurring illnesses are identified and brought under control, they can seriously limit the effectiveness and long-term stability of a patient’s treatment and recovery. Treating such illnesses often means talk therapy, medication or a combination of the two, which often adds a therapist or psychiatrist to the eating disorder treatment team.
Treatment for the eating disorder itself often involves counseling with a therapist who specializes in disordered eating. Individual counseling, group counseling and family counseling can all help patients gain perspective and control over their eating habits.
Dieticians Help Patients Regain Positive Relationship With Food
However, people who have struggled with disordered eating often develop such a dysfunctional relationship with food that they need to learn how to eat all over again. Furthermore, a fairly structured diet is very helpful for people recovering from disordered eating. A structured eating plan not only takes some of the pressure of choosing what to eat off of patients for whom this is extremely stressful, but also helps to ensure that patients are consuming enough calories and replenishing the important nutritional elements that are often depleted during their illness.
For diet management and advice, patients in recovery from disordered eating will commonly work with a dietician or nutrition therapist. Dieticians often begin by prescribing fairly specific meal plans, while eventually helping patients transition into managing their own meals. Dieticians who specialize in eating disorder treatment have a great deal of understanding about these illnesses in addition to their nutritional knowledge, and can help patients understand how nutrition and activity impact overall physical and mental health.