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How Does Eating Disorder Counseling Work?

One of the reasons that eating disorders can be extremely difficult to treat is that they can be difficult to identify — although some people who have eating disorders are able to recognize the need for help and seek it out, most go to great lengths to hide their harmful behavior, even from those closest to them. Once the sufferer’s physical symptoms and ailing health have given them away or their behavior has made a loved one, friend, colleague or teacher strongly suspect an eating disorder is to blame, many anorexics, bulimics and binge eaters still remain in denial about the seriousness or even the existence of their condition.

Fortunately, if you have admitted that you have a problem and are ready to move forward, or if you need to find an effective means of treatment for someone you care about, counseling can provide crucial eating disorder help before it’s too late.

Types of Eating Disorder Counseling

The most effective way of treating eating disorder patients is with a two-fold combination of counseling: psychological and nutritional. Treatment can last months or longer than a year depending on an individual’s needs and progress. Unfortunately, some people who have struggled with an eating disorder will need to go through counseling several times over their lifetime either because their struggle is ongoing, or because they got well but have since relapsed, or because they are in danger of relapsing.

Did You Know?

Despite available resources, many cases of eating disorders go untreated. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, less than half of adult bulimics and only one-third of adult anorexics are currently receiving long-term treatment for their condition.

Eating disorder treatment can generally be administered on an outpatient basis, unless there is reason to suspect that a patient’s life is in immediate jeopardy. For example, anorexics whose body weight is dangerously low or who are experiencing significant health complications like heart or kidney troubles as a result of chronic malnourishment will undergo inpatient care at hospitals or eating disorder treatment centers for the first part of their recovery. Once their physical health is stabilized, they will begin counseling.

Therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, is a kind of psychotherapy often used to treat bulimics and binge eaters. CBT for these eating disorders seeks to help the patient to identify the irrational or otherwise negative thought patterns that lead to the binge-purge cycle and to consciously replace them with more positive and constructive ways of thinking.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, some studies have shown that, for anorexics, therapy that addresses the underlying psychological issues that lead to self-starvation (e.g., distorted body image, need for control) is most effective when combined with ongoing medical treatment.

Nutritional Counseling. Anyone suffering from an eating disorder has an unhealthy relationship with food, and nutritional counseling can provide ways of improving that relationship. The nutrition counselor can help the patient become more aware about food’s roles in the body (including how eating well is conducive, not detrimental, to maintaining a healthy weight), as well as examine with them what it means to have healthy eating habits and how to build those habits.

In addition to counseling, medication is often helpful in treating eating disorders. The therapist or doctor who is overseeing the treatment will most likely prescribe an antidepressant like Prozac, although there have been cases in which antipsychotic and mood stabilizing drugs were also shown to have a positive effect on treating anorexia.

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