How is anorexia treated?

Treatment of anorexia is often approached as a three-step process:
  • restoring weight loss due to severe dieting and purging
  • treating psychological conditions such as distorted body image, low self-esteem and interpersonal conflicts
  • long-term remission and rehabilitation or full recovery
A one-year study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association determined that there was no significant difference between those with anorexia who took antidepressants and those who received a placebo -- evidence that there is no "magic pill" to make your disorder go away and keep it away.

While healthcare professionals may find it beneficial to prescribe various medications to their eating disorders patients, medications are primarily reserved for coexisting conditions.

Some physicians may also prescribe antipsychotic medications to help reduce the rigid and distorted thinking and agitation that can accompany anorexia, but these drugs can frighten patients by dramatically increasing appetite, so they should be used with caution. For people struggling with anorexia who experience extreme anxiety surrounding eating, antianxiety drugs, such as benzodiazepines, may be used.

Another approach to treating eating disorders is family-based treatment. In a family-centered treatment program, the family assumes responsibility for making the patient eat. No one is "blamed" for triggering the illness; rather, the eating disorder is treated as a medical condition, and the family is taught to care for the sick person. The power shifts back to the individual after he or she reaches an acceptable weight. This method works best on people with anorexia, but it also works on some with bulimia. It is typically utilized in adolescents and is being researched for use in young adults.
Dr. Mehmet Oz, MD
Cardiology (Cardiovascular Disease)
Treatment for anorexia is complicated. It often is very difficult for a victim to identify their eating habits as the primary problem. Instead, they view their habits as a solution to other underlying issues, and never appreciate the actual disorder at work. Both nutritional restoration and emotional treatment are essential to achieving long-term recovery. If your partner or someone you know struggles with low weight and food restrictions, obsessions and compulsions, they could be at risk for an eating disorder.
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Brooke Randolph
Marriage & Family Therapy
Treatment of anorexia nervosa should include a multi-disciplinary team of professionals, with at least one mental health professional, one medical health, and a registered dietitian or nutritionist. Family therapy may also be included to teach loved ones how to support the person suffering from an eating disorder; this is especially important for children and teens. Due to the complexity of eating disorders, it is strongly recommended that you find professionals that specialize in the treatment of eating disorders. Anti-depressant medications may be a small part of treatment. Hospitalization may be necessary to treat health complications. Treatment will likely be long term; however, up to 76 percent of sufferers recover within five years.

Specific treatment for anorexia nervosa will be determined by your physician based on:

  • your age, overall health, and medical history
  • extent of the symptoms
  • your tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies
  • expectations for the course of the condition
  • your opinion or preference

Anorexia is usually treated with a combination of individual therapy, family therapy, behavior modification, and nutritional rehabilitation. Treatment should always be based on a comprehensive evaluation of the individual and family. Individual therapy usually includes both cognitive and behavioral techniques. Medication (usually antidepressants) may be helpful if the person with anorexia is also depressed. The frequent occurrence of medical complications and the possibility of death during the course of acute and rehabilitative treatment requires both your physician and a nutritionist to be active members of the management team. Families play a vital supportive role in any treatment process.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.