Eating disorders are diagnosed based on symptoms and a review of eating habits and behaviors. You may see both your health care provider and a mental health professional for a diagnosis.
To get a diagnosis, you may need:
- A physical exam. Your health care provider will likely examine you to rule out other medical causes for your eating issues. The provider also may order lab tests.
- A mental health evaluation. A mental health professional asks about your thoughts, feelings, and eating habits and behaviors. You also may be asked to answer a series of questions to help with the diagnosis.
- Other studies. Other medical tests may be done to check for any complications related to your eating issues.
The best treatment for an eating disorder involves a team approach. The team commonly includes your primary health care provider, a mental health professional and sometimes a registered dietitian. Look for professionals with experience in treating eating disorders.
Treatment depends on your specific type of eating disorder. But in general, it includes:
- Learning about proper nutrition.
- Learning how to develop healthy eating habits.
- Guidance in reaching a healthy weight if you're underweight.
- Behavioral therapy, sometimes called talk therapy.
- Medicine, if needed.
If your life is at risk, you may need to go into a hospital right away.
Certain behavioral therapies can be effective in treating eating disorders. These include:
- Family-based treatment (FBT). FBT is an outpatient treatment for children and teenagers with anorexia. It also is likely effective for bulimia and other problem eating behaviors. 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, binge-eating disorder and some other problem eating behaviors. A type of CBT called enhanced CBT is used most often. You learn how to monitor and improve your eating habits and moods, develop problem-solving skills, and explore healthy ways to cope with stressful situations.
Medicine can't cure an eating disorder. No medicines have been shown to help with weight gain or to treat anorexia. For bulimia or binge-eating disorder, certain medicines may help manage urges to binge or purge or help manage an extreme focus on food and diet.
A hospital stay or day program
If you have serious health problems related to your eating disorder, your health care provider may recommend that you stay in the hospital for a time. Some clinics specialize in treating people with eating disorders. Some may offer day programs, rather than a stay in the hospital. Specialized eating disorder programs may offer more intensive treatment over longer periods of time.
Lifestyle and home remedies
To improve the chances of success in overcoming an eating disorder:
- Find a mental health provider with expertise in eating disorders. Treatment is most effective when delivered by a provider with specialty training in eating disorders. Look for a provider with experience in treatments shown to be effective, such as FBT and CBT.
- Follow your treatment plan. Don't skip therapy sessions and try not to stray from meal plans. Follow your health care provider's instructions on physical activity and exercise.
- Talk to your health care provider about appropriate vitamin and mineral supplements. If you're not eating well, chances are your body isn't getting all the nutrients it needs, such as vitamin D or iron. For healthy people, health care providers commonly recommend getting most vitamins and minerals from food.
- Resist urges to weigh yourself. And don't check yourself in the mirror often. This may simply increase your drive to maintain habits that aren't healthy.
- Don't isolate yourself from others. Caring family members and friends who have your best interests at heart want to see you get healthy.
Alternative medicine is a popular name for health care practices that traditionally are not part of well-researched standard medicine. Complementary and integrative medicine, when based on solid research, may sometimes be used along with standard medicine — but they are not substitutes for standard medical care.
Most often when people turn to alternative or complementary medicine, it's to improve their health. But dietary supplements and herbal products designed to dampen the appetite or aid in weight loss may be unsafe and misused by people with eating disorders. Such products can have dangerous interactions with other medicines.
Weight-loss and other dietary supplements don't need approval by the U.S. 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 health care provider before trying any alternative or complementary medicine. Natural doesn't always mean safe. Your provider 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. They can promote relaxation and increase a sense of well-being. Examples include:
Coping and support
It's difficult to manage an eating disorder when you get mixed messages from the media, culture, and sometimes family or friends. Whether you or your loved one has an eating disorder, ask your health care provider or a 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. You may want to ask a relative or friend to go with you for support and to aid your memory. A family member may be able to give your provider a more complete 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. Try to remember when your symptoms began.
- Key personal information, including any major stresses or recent life changes.
- All medicines, including over-the-counter medicines, vitamins, herbal products or other supplements that you're taking, and their doses.
- Questions to ask your health care provider or mental health provider so that you'll remember to cover everything you want to.
Some questions you might ask include:
- Do you think I have an eating disorder?
- 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 suggest?
Feel free to ask other questions during your appointment.
What to expect from your doctor
Your health care provider or mental health provider is likely to ask you several questions, such as:
- Tell me about your eating habits.
- 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?
Your provider may ask other questions based on your answers, symptoms and needs. Be ready to answer questions so you have time to discuss whatever is most important to you.