Initiating and Following Through With Eating Disorder Recovery

A guide to help you through the ups and downs

Overcoming an eating disorder is not an easy journey. It’s a difficult process with many ups and downs, but it is worth the time and effort.

Taking steps toward recovery can improve your quality of life and can even be lifesaving. With treatment and continued support, eating disorder recovery is possible.

Female doctor holding hands of her patient at hospital room

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How Do You Know If You Need Help?

If you are constantly preoccupied with thoughts about food, dieting, and your body weight and shape, and have engaged in extreme behavior to lose weight or prevent weight gain, you may be at risk of or have an eating disorder.

If you’re not sure whether or not you have an eating disorder, taking an online screener, such as EAT-26, can help you determine if you should seek professional help.

Types of Eating Disorders

Five primary types of eating disorders can be diagnosed by a mental health professional:

  • Anorexia nervosa: Typically characterized by weight loss, difficulties maintaining an appropriate body weight, and an intense fear of weight gain
  • Bulimia nervosa: Characterized by the cycle of binging and compensatory behaviors, such as vomiting, use of laxatives, or extreme exercise to compensate for the food eaten during the binge
  • Binge eating disorder: Characterized by repeatedly eating large quantities of food quickly to the point of discomfort while feeling a loss of control, followed by guilt and shame
  • Other specified feeding and eating disorder: Characterized by eating disorder symptoms, but does not meet strict criteria for anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa diagnosis
  • Unspecified feeding or eating disorder: Characterized by symptoms of a feeding and eating disorder that causes significant distress or impairment in life, but does not meet the full criteria for any eating disorder diagnosis

Eating disorders negatively impact your physical, mental, and emotional health. These devastating diseases can impact all of your organ systems, including your cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, endocrine, and neurological systems.

Mentally and emotionally, you may be completely preoccupied with thoughts about food and your body, which can impact your ability to function regularly, such as doing your job, going to school, or socializing.

Anxiety, mood swings, and depression are also common with eating disorders, which may impact your emotional health, relationships, and ability to cope.

Whether you have been struggling with an eating disorder for weeks, months, or years, it is not too late to receive help. Getting professional help can only support you in your recovery journey.

People Involved in Your Recovery

It’s important to have a team of eating disorder specialists to aid you in your recovery. At a minimum, your team should consist of a physician, mental health counselor, and registered dietitian nutritionist.

For treatment of eating disorders in children and adolescents, family members and loved ones are essential to the recovery process.

In fact, having a strong support system is critical for recovery at any age. Friends and family can provide love and encouragement throughout your recovery.

If you do not have friends or family whom you feel comfortable reaching out to, you may find it helpful to connect with online or in-person support groups and recovery mentors.

Phases of Recovery

During eating disorder recovery, you will go through the Stages of Change. It is common to go through multiple cycles of each phase throughout recovery or be in various stages at the same time for the symptoms of the eating disorder.

The Stages of Change include:

  • Pre-contemplation: Close family and friends may notice the symptoms and behaviors of an eating disorder, but you may still think that you do not have a problem or need help.
  • Contemplation: You are willing to admit that you have an eating disorder and need help, however you are fearful of changes.
  • Preparation: You are ready to make a change, but you’re not sure how or what to do.
  • Action: You begin to make changes following the recommendations of your care team.
  • Maintenance: You have sustained changes for six months or more. You are working with your team to create strategies to maintain changes and prevent relapse.

Considerations to Keep in Mind

Recovery from an eating disorder is time consuming and difficult. You’ll need to put in all your effort and recruit a strong support system to help you get through the process. Here are some considerations as you begin your journey to recovery.

Before

As you are preparing for recovery, you may be filled with negative thoughts and feelings, including doubt, shame, blame, and fear. These are normal. The important thing is that you are ready and open to receiving help, the first step toward recovery.

The process for recovery will be long and difficult, so it is important to manage your own expectations. At some point or multiple points during recovery, you may feel that you are not making any progress. It’s important to remember that recovery from an eating disorder is a non-linear process, and you may be cycling through the stages of recovery.

During

To recover, you’ll need strength, patience, and commitment. As you begin implementing changes suggested by your care team, you may still have a lot of fears and resistance or be faced with triggering situations. That’s because you’ll be breaking old habits and learning new coping skills, which may feel a lot like letting go of a life jacket.

Continue to focus on your goals, communicate, and trust your care team to ensure the best possible environment to support your recovery. When things are difficult, continue your efforts and lean on your support system during those hard times. Connecting with others, including your family, friends, and therapists, will be a critical strategy during your recovery.

After

Both during and after your recovery, self-care is an important tool. This includes journaling, yoga, meditation, relaxation, pet therapy, food diaries, and spirituality. These strategies can help you come to terms with your appearance.

Other strategies may include eating regularly, maintaining a steady weight, moderate physical activity, and limiting alcohol consumption.

One of the most important aspects of staying in recovery is establishing and embracing who you are when you are no longer defined by your eating disorder.

Relapses

When it comes to eating disorders, relapses are common, especially in the event of stress, such as stressful life events, work, and social situations. While it may be impossible to avoid stress entirely, a relapse is not an indicator that recovery is impossible.

Maintaining and increasing your motivation to recover, and working with your treatment team to create coping strategies, can help you move forward in your recovery process.

Finding Treatment

Treatment plans are tailored to help you recover from your eating disorder. These may include:

  • Individual, group, or family psychotherapy: It’s essential to find a therapist that specializes in treating eating disorders. The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) offers an online directory to help you find in-person providers near you or virtual providers who may better fit your needs, budget, or style of therapy. Some types of therapies include the Maudsley method, a type of family therapy; medical nutrition therapy; cognitive behavioral therapy; dialectical behavioral therapy; and acceptance and commitment therapy.
  • Medical care and monitoring: Depending on the severity of your eating disorder and the level of support and supervision required, different levels of treatment are available, including outpatient, intensive outpatient, partial hospitalization, residential treatment centers, or medical hospitalizations. NEDA’s helpline can help you find a treatment center, and once you do, you’ll undergo an assessment to determine which level of treatment is right for you.
  • Nutritional counseling: It is important to find nutritional support tailored toward your recovery goal, whether that is weight gain or maintenance. It is best to find a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) who specializes in eating disorders. The most common eating disorder certifications for RDNs include those certified by the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals, Training Institute for Child and Adolescent Eating Disorders, or Intuitive Eating Pros.
  • Medications: Medications such as antidepressants, antipsychotics, or mood stabilizers may be helpful for those in recovery, especially if you are also suffering from anxiety or depression. Speak with your physician about whether medications may be appropriate for your treatment plan.
  • Participating in research: Joining a clinical study is another option for receiving eating disorder care. You may be eligible to apply for clinical research on eating disorders funded by the National Institutes of Health.
  • Support groups: Many free online forums and support groups are available. NEDA offers tools and resources to help you find a group near you, or you may opt for virtual support or an app.

Financial Resources

It is well known that eating disorder treatment is expensive, and qualifying for health insurance coverage may be difficult. However, receiving professional help is critical.

If you are worried about how to pay for treatment, speak with your treatment providers about these concerns. They may be able to help you find resources or refer you to more affordable options. NEDA has a list of free and low-cost resources available.

Tips for the Holidays

Holidays are generally associated with joy, reunion, and a lot of food. However, for those in eating disorder recovery or with a family member in recovery, it may be an especially difficult and stressful time.

A person’s struggle with food and body image may become magnified, and social situations or strained relationships can further worsen the feelings of shame, guilt, and blame.

Be compassionate with yourself, and communicate with your family members and support network about your feelings. Asking your family members for help and setting up agreements in advance can help alleviate some of the anxiety.

Agreements you might make with family members include:

  • Avoiding any talk about diets or weight
  • Asking them not to comment on your body or what you do or don’t eat
  • Focusing on quality time together and conversations on topics other than the food
  • Checking in with you on how you are feeling and what help you need to feel supported during this time
  • Reminding you that you are loved and supported

A Word From Verywell

If you or a loved one is struggling with an eating disorder, the journey to recovery is not an easy one, but it is worth the effort. Eating disorders are mental health diseases that have serious physical, mental, and emotional consequences, and they can be fatal without treatment.

Finding a strong support system, maintaining hope, and increasing motivation will help you during this difficult time. As there is no specific timeline for recovery, it is critical to be patient with yourself or your loved one.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the timeline for eating disorder recovery?

    Every individual’s eating disorder recovery journey is different. For most individuals, recovery is not a linear process. Often, individuals will move through the phases of recovery several times, which can take months or years. Some individuals may be in recovery for the rest of their lives.

  • How effective is treatment for eating disorders?

    The effectiveness of treatment depends on the severity of the disease and type of treatment plan. Having a strong, supportive environment and multidisciplinary healthcare team is crucial for the effectiveness of treatment, as well as to help prevent relapses after treatment, although they may still occur.

  • What foods are good to eat during eating disorder recovery?

    A registered dietitian nutritionist will work with each individual to come up with an eating plan. The plan may change over the course of treatment and recovery depending on the goal of treatment, whether it is consuming enough vitamins and minerals or helping the individual develop healthier thoughts and habits around eating.

  • Are eating disorder treatment centers affordable?

    Unfortunately, eating disorder treatment centers are known to be fairly expensive. Even with health insurance, coverage is limited. However, you may be able to find low-cost or free support through community mental health centers, support groups, treatment scholarships, university treatment centers, or web and app-based support.

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11 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. National Eating Disorders Association. Bulimia nervosa.

  3. National Eating Disorders Association. Binge eating disorder.

  4. National Eating Disorders Association. Other specified feeding or eating disorders.

  5. National Eating Disorders Association. Unspecified feeding or eating disorder.

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  7. National Eating Disorders Association. Stages of recovery.

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  9. Grilo CM, Pagano ME, Stout RL, et al. Stressful life events predict eating disorder relapse following remission: six-year prospective outcomesInt J Eat Disord. 2012;45(2):185-192. doi:10.1002/eat.20909

  10. National Institute of Mental Health. Eating disorders.

  11. Center for Change. Coping with a loved ones’ eating disorder during the holidays. Updated July 2014.