Eating disorders are diagnosed based on signs, symptoms and eating habits. If your doctor suspects you have an eating disorder, he or she will likely perform an exam and request tests to help pinpoint a diagnosis. You may see both your primary care provider and a mental health professional for a diagnosis.
Assessments and tests generally include:
- Physical exam. Your doctor will likely examine you to rule out other medical causes for your eating issues. He or she may also order lab tests.
- Psychological evaluation. A doctor or mental health professional will likely ask about your thoughts, feelings and eating habits. You may also be asked to complete psychological self-assessment questionnaires.
- Other studies. Additional tests may be done to check for any complications related to your eating disorder.
Your mental health professional also may use the diagnostic criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), published by the American Psychiatric Association.
Treatment of an eating disorder generally includes a team approach. The team typically includes primary care providers, mental health professionals and dietitians — all with experience in eating disorders.
Treatment depends on your specific type of eating disorder. But in general, it typically includes nutrition education, psychotherapy and medication. If your life is at risk, you may need immediate hospitalization.
No matter what your weight, the members of your team can work with you to design a plan to help you achieve healthy eating habits.
Psychotherapy, also called talk therapy, can help you learn how to replace unhealthy habits with healthy ones. This may include:
- Family-based therapy (FBT). FBT is an evidence-based treatment for children and teenagers with eating disorders. The family is involved in making sure that the child or other family member follows healthy-eating patterns and maintains a healthy weight.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT is commonly used in eating disorder treatment, especially for bulimia and binge-eating disorder. You learn how to monitor and improve your eating habits and your moods, develop problem-solving skills, and explore healthy ways to cope with stressful situations.
Medication can't cure an eating disorder. However, certain medications may help you control urges to binge or purge or to manage excessive preoccupations with food and diet. Drugs such as antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications may help with symptoms of depression or anxiety, which are frequently associated with eating disorders.
If you have serious health problems, such as anorexia that has resulted in severe malnutrition, your doctor may recommend hospitalization. Some clinics specialize in treating people with eating disorders. Some may offer day programs, rather than full hospitalization. Specialized eating disorder programs may offer more intensive treatment over longer periods of time.
Lifestyle and home remedies
To improve your chances of success in overcoming your eating disorder, try to make these steps a part of your daily routine:
- Stick to your treatment plan — don't skip therapy sessions and try not to stray from meal plans. Follow your doctor's recommendations on physical activity and exercise.
- Talk to your doctor about appropriate vitamin and mineral supplements. If you're not eating well, chances are your body isn't getting all of the nutrients it needs, such as vitamin D or iron. However, getting most of your vitamins and minerals from food is typically recommended.
- Resist urges to weigh yourself or check yourself in the mirror frequently. This may simply fuel your drive to maintain unhealthy habits.
- Don't isolate yourself from caring family members and friends who want to see you get healthy and have your best interests at heart.
Alternative medicine is the use of a nonconventional approach instead of conventional medicine. Complementary or integrative medicine is a nonconventional approach used along with conventional medicine.
Usually, when people turn to alternative or complementary medicine it's to improve their health. But dietary supplements and herbal products designed to suppress the appetite or aid in weight loss may be unsafe and abused by people with eating disorders. Such products can have potentially dangerous interactions with other medications.
Weight-loss and other dietary supplements don't need approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to go on the market. The FDA maintains an online list of tainted weight-loss products, some of which can cause serious harm, such as irregular heartbeats, increased blood pressure, stroke and even death.
Talk with your doctor before trying any alternative or complementary medicine. Natural doesn't always mean safe. Your doctor can help you understand possible risks and benefits before you try a treatment.
Reduce stress and anxiety
Some complementary treatments and approaches may help reduce stress and anxiety, promote relaxation, and increase a sense of well-being in people with eating disorders. Examples include:
Coping and support
It's difficult to cope with an eating disorder when you're hit with mixed messages by the media, culture, and perhaps your own family or friends. Whether you or your loved one has an eating disorder, ask your doctor or mental health professional for advice on coping and emotional support.
Learning effective coping strategies and getting the support you need from family and friends are vital to successful treatment.
Preparing for your appointment
Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment, and what you might expect from your doctor and a mental health professional.
You may want to ask a family member or friend to come with you. Someone who accompanies you may remember something that you missed or forgot. A family member may also be able to give your doctor a fuller picture of your home life.
What you can do
Before your appointment, make a list of:
- Any symptoms you're experiencing, including any that may seem unrelated to the reason for your appointment
- Key personal information, including any major stresses or recent life changes
- All medications, vitamins or other supplements that you're taking, and their doses
- Questions to ask your doctor so that you'll remember to cover everything you wanted to
Ask a family member or friend to come with you, if possible. Someone who accompanies you may remember something that you missed or forgot. A family member may also be able to give your doctor a fuller picture of your home life.
Some questions you might want to ask your doctor or other health care provider include:
- What kinds of tests do I need? Do these tests require any special preparation?
- Is this condition temporary or long lasting?
- What treatments are available, and which do you recommend?
- How will treatment affect my weight?
- Are there any brochures or other printed material that I can have? What websites do you recommend?
Don't hesitate to ask additional questions during your appointment.
What to expect from your doctor
Your doctor or mental health professional is likely to ask you a number of questions, such as:
- How long have you been worried about your weight?
- Do you exercise? How often do you exercise and for how long?
- Have you found any other ways to lose weight?
- Are you having any physical symptoms?
- Have you ever vomited because you were uncomfortably full?
- Have others expressed concern about your weight?
- Do you think about food often?
- Do you ever eat in secret?
- Have any of your family members ever had symptoms of or been diagnosed with an eating disorder?
Be ready to answer these questions to reserve time to go over any points you want to focus on.