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Explains eating problems, including possible causes and how you can access treatment and support. Includes tips for helping yourself, and guidance for friends and family.
Treatment can help you develop balanced and healthy eating patterns and help you face – and cope with – the underlying issues which may be causing your eating problem. This page covers:
"Ultimately, my psychologist, occupational therapist and dietician saved my life."
Talking about your eating problems can be scary, but if you'd like treatment and support, the first step is usually to visit your doctor (GP). They should be able to refer you to more specialist services.
See our pages on seeking help for a mental health problem for more information on how to prepare for an appointment and having your say in treatment.
If you are diagnosed with bulimia or binge eating disorder, or your eating problems have similar symptoms, you may be offered support through an online self-help programme at first. You should receive short support sessions alongside the programme. These may be face-to-face or over the phone. If you are finding it hard to complete, or don't find it helpful, ask your GP for more support.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) – the organisation that produces guidelines on best practice in health care – recommends the following talking treatments for eating problems:
"Cognitive behavioural therapy really helped me to change the distorted thoughts flying around my head and move on from my eating disorder."
You can access talking treatments through the NHS. Your GP should be able to make a referral. There can be long waiting lists on the NHS, so you may also want to consider seeing a therapist privately – but be aware that private therapists usually charge for appointments. You can find a private therapist through the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP).
You may also be able to find free counselling services and support groups through the eating disorder charity b-eat.
There are no drugs specifically for eating disorders, but you may be offered medication to treat some underlying factors (such as depression or anxiety). The most common medication prescribed to people experiencing bulimia or binge eating disorders is a type of antidepressant known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). If you have anorexia, you may be offered antidepressants or antipsychotics. Most people are offered these drugs alongside talking treatments – medication shouldn't be the only thing you're offered.
Being underweight can mean that drugs are absorbed more quickly into your bloodstream, which could make medication harmful or not as effective as it should be. Your doctor will decide whether to offer you medication, and you can decide whether you want to take it.
(See our pages on antidepressants, antipsychotics and psychiatric medication in general for more information about these drugs, including what to know before you take them and your right to refuse medication.)
You may need to go into hospital or to a clinic if your doctor or care team feel you are very unwell or underweight, if other kinds of treatment haven’t worked, or if your home environment is making it hard for you to stay well.
If you are an outpatient or day patient, you will go home most evenings and weekends. If you are an inpatient, you will stay in the hospital or clinic for most of your treatment. How long you are admitted for will depend on how much help you need to recover.
You will normally receive a range of support as an inpatient. The staff at the hospital or clinic could include:
Treatment can include:
Your weight and general health will be monitored. There may be guidance on buying, preparing and serving food, how to cope with stress and anxiety, how to be more assertive, and how to manage anger and communicate well.
"With the daily routine, support system, classes and therapy I was able to start to rationalise anorexia’s thoughts and slowly become stronger."
There are only a few NHS eating disorder clinics, so you may not always be able to access treatment close to where you live. This may mean going to a clinic further away, or it could mean going to a general mental health hospital. You can ask your GP or care team if you’d like to know more about specialist clinics.
There are also private treatment centres. Some may offer similar treatment to NHS clinics, while others will have a wider range of complementary and art therapies. The eating disorder charity b-eat has a directory of services that you can look at to see what’s available.
Researchers are investigating techniques that stimulate the brain using magnetic fields or a weak electrical current. Among other things, they may help reduce symptoms of anorexia and food cravings.
These treatments are not currently recommended by NICE. More research is needed to see whether these techniques could be developed into treatments for eating problems.
This information was published in June 2017. We will revise it in 2020.
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