Treatment and support for eating disorders
Getting treatment can help you develop healthy, balanced eating patterns. It can also help you face and cope with any underlying issues.
This page has information about different treatment and support options.
Talking about your eating problems can feel scary. But to access treatment, the first step is usually to talk to your GP or hospital doctor. They should then be able to refer you to specialist services.
See our pages on seeking help for a mental health problem for more information.
My main piece of advice is to go to the doctor. I did, eventually. Doctors are nice people. They listen and understand and try their hardest to help.
In some cases, at first you might get support through an online self-help programme.
This might be offered to you initially if:
- You get a diagnosis for bulimia
- You get a diagnosis for binge eating disorder
- The symptoms of your eating problem are similar to either of the above
You should receive short support sessions alongside the programme. These may be face-to-face or over the phone.
If you find the programme hard to complete, or find it unhelpful, ask your GP for more support.
Like some other mental health problems, you might be offered talking treatments for eating problems.
The following treatments are recommended by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). It produces guidelines on best practice in healthcare.
Read more about the NICE recommendations for treating eating problems.
Cognitive behavioural therapy for eating disorders (CBT-ED)
This form of CBT is specifically adapted to treat eating disorders. It may be offered for anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorder.
- For anorexia, you should be offered up to 40 sessions. You should have twice weekly sessions in the first two or three weeks.
- For bulimia, you should be offered at least 20 sessions. You may be offered twice weekly sessions at first.
- For binge eating disorder, you should be offered group CBT sessions at first. If you'd prefer individual therapy or find the sessions unhelpful, tell your therapist or doctor.
Cognitive behavioural therapy really helped me to change the distorted thoughts flying around my head and move on from my eating disorder.
Family therapy means working through issues with your family and the support of a therapist. It's commonly offered to people with anorexia, especially younger people.
You might explore situations that could relate to underlying issues of your eating problem. It can help your family understand your eating problem and how to support you.
See our pages on talking treatments for more information.
The hospital also gave my family an opportunity to attend family counselling in which they learned how best to support me.
Accessing talking treatments
You can access talking treatments through the NHS. Your GP should be able to make a referral.
But be aware that there can be long waiting lists on the NHS. Because of this, some people also consider private therapy. For private therapy, you have to pay for appointments.
Some options include:
- Finding a private therapist through the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP).
- Private therapy isn't an option for everyone because of the cost. You could try to access free counselling services and support groups from Beat (the eating problems charity).
See also our page on useful contacts for eating problems.
There are no specific drugs to treat eating disorders. However, you may be offered medication for underlying factors such as depression or anxiety. For example, you may be offered an antidepressant to help manage these feelings.
You should be offered medication alongside talking treatments. Medication shouldn't be the only thing you're offered. Your doctor will decide whether to offer you medication – you can decide whether you want to take it.
You may need to go into a hospital or clinic because of your eating problem. This might be necessary if:
- Your doctor or care team feel you are very unwell or underweight
- Other kinds of treatment haven’t worked
- Your home environment is making it hard for you to stay well
How long do I have to stay?
If you're an outpatient or day patient, you will go home most evenings and weekends. If you're 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.
What support and treatment can I get?
You'll normally receive a range of support as an inpatient. The staff at the hospital or clinic could include:
- Occupational therapists
- Social workers
- Family and relationship therapists
- Specialist nurses
Treatment can include:
- Talking therapies
- Working in groups with others experiencing eating problems
Your weight and general health will be monitored for the duration of your stay. You may also get guidance on:
With the daily routine, support system, classes and therapy I was able to start to rationalise anorexia’s thoughts and slowly become stronger.
What if I don't live near a clinic?
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 could mean going to a clinic further away, or going to a general mental health hospital. 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. Others have a wider range of complementary and art therapies.
Try using Beat's HelpFinder tool, which is a directory of available services.
Could I be forced to go to hospital?
You could be forced to go to hospital under the Mental Health Act. This is often known as 'being sectioned'. You can be sectioned if your own health or safety is at risk, or to protect other people.
Before being sectioned, you will be assessed by health professionals. You could be sectioned for your eating problem if, for example:
- It has a significant negative impact on your own health or safety
- You won’t be able to recover without medical support
- Your mental health might get worse
If you are sectioned, you may also be treated against your consent during your stay in hospital. Treatment against your consent for an eating problem could involve refeeding, for example.
For more detailed information, see our legal pages on sectioning.
This information was published in January 2021. We will revise it in 2024.
References and bibliography available on request.
If you want to reproduce this content, see our permissions and licensing page.