for better mental health

Eating problems

Learn about eating problems, including possible causes, symptoms and how to access treatment and support. Includes self-care tips for helping yourself, plus guidance for friends and family.

Note: this page covers recommended treatments for anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder.

You may get a diagnosis of other specified feeding and eating disorder (OSFED). Or you may not get a diagnosis at all. Your doctor should offer treatment for the diagnosis that most closely matches your symptoms.

You shouldn't need a diagnosis to get treatment.

See our page about types of diagnosed eating disorders for more information.

Talking to your doctor

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.

"So 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."

Online self-help programmes

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.

Talking treatments for eating problems

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

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.

"The hospital also gave my family an opportunity to attend family counselling in which they learned how best to support me."

See our pages on talking treatments for more information.

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:

See also our page on useful contacts for eating problems.

Talking treatments for anorexia

If you get an anorexia diagnosis, you may be offered some additional talking treatments.

  • Maudsley Anorexia Nervosa Treatment for Adults (MANTRA). This helps you work towards recovery by helping you understand what keeps you attached to anorexia. Gradually you can learn alternative ways of coping. This should be done at a pace that suits you and your needs. You should be offered at least 20 sessions.
  • Specialist Supportive Clinical Management (SSCM). This is not purely a talking treatment, but talking treatment can be included. You'll have weekly meetings where you receive support for weight gain, physical health, education and advice. You'll also have a chance to talk about key issues you're experiencing. It can help you think more about your symptoms and behaviour.
  • Focal Psychodynamic Therapy (FPT). This treatment aims to help you understand how your eating habits are related to what you think, feel about yourself and others. Usually, this is only offered when you find that other treatments aren't right for you.

"I dreaded the thought of group therapy but the experience of hearing others talk about their problems really resonated with me."

Medication 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.

If your eating problem means you're underweight, drugs are absorbed more quickly into your bloodstream. This could make any medication more harmful, or not as effective, as it should be.

See our pages on antidepressants, antipsychotics and psychiatric medication for more about these drugs.

Admission to a hospital or clinic

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:

  • doctors
  • dieticians
  • psychotherapists
  • occupational therapists
  • social workers
  • family and relationship therapists
  • specialist nurses.

Treatment can include:

  • talking therapies
  • medication
  • refeeding
  • 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 is refeeding?

Refeeding means being given food in order to bring your weight up to a healthy level.

It involves helping you to gain weight so that your energy levels and physical health improve. You may be given certain foods for their nutritional value. Or foods that are particularly good at helping people gain weight.

Refeeding varies from one clinic to another. Some doctors may do this over a period of time, allowing you to gradually increase your weight. Others will want to help you back to a healthy weight as soon as possible.

This can be a distressing process, especially if you do not want to gain weight. It may be something to discuss with your GP or hospital doctor in more detail.

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.

woman with brown hair smilng

Saying goodbye to anorexia

"It took everything I had to fight those thoughts and admit I needed help – but I did."

This information was published in January 2021. We will revise it in 2024.

References are available on request. If you would like to reproduce any of this information, see our page on permissions and licensing.

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