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Six Indicators You’ve Found an Effective Eating Disorder Treatment Center

Like nearly all mental health issues, treating eating disorders can be challenging. One thing that sets eating disorders apart from other conditions, though, is that those with eating disorders might not be able to recognize that there is a problem. Sometimes those people who have an eating disorder aren’t the ones who are distressed by its manifestations. Instead, those around the person noticed symptoms that are concerning. So why exactly is an eating disorder treatment center so vital to recovery? Here are six reasons:

1. They offer Various Treatment Options

One of the challenges of treating an eating disorder is that most people don’t fit into a neat little box of treatment options that, when applied, result in a person who no longer has to contend with it.

Some people might need the intensive therapeutic care that comes from an in-patient program while others can’t get the treatment they need without having access to outpatient treatment.

Having access to an eating disorder psychologist — either individually, in a group, or both — can give the patient access to peer groups, individualized attention, and other techniques that are geared toward addressing the root causes of their eating disorder.

2. They Offer Individualized Treatment

While many patients make an appointment with their primary care physician or another medical professional for an initial eating disorder assessment, these generalized doctors are not going to be the best blueprint for success. Just like a patient wouldn’t see an ear, nose, and throat doctor if they had a broken leg or a general physician if they needed dental care, specialized treatment in a facility that specializes in that aspect of healthcare is the sure way to success.

3. A Talented and Diverse Staff

When a person is a client at an eating disorder treatment center, they will have access to an entire team of healthcare workers who specialize in addressing the unique needs and situations that are present in those who have eating disorders. It’s typical for a patient to have four or five clinicians working on their recovery. Some examples include a physician, psychologist, nutritionist, and more.

4. A Comprehensive Continuum of Care

Much like today’s eating disorder treatment facilities offer different levels of care to accommodate the lifestyle choices and needs of their patients, so too do they offer an array of different services. These are aimed at providing patients with a comprehensive treatment plan that supports them throughout their recovery. In addition to group therapy, nutritional counseling, and psychotherapy, for example, patients might also have access to holistic treatment methods such as water therapy and horseback riding.

5. Family Is a Major Part of the Treatment Process

For most people struggling with eating disorders, having access to a strong and stable support system is crucial to their recovery. Many people look to their families to provide this type of reassurance and support. Whether “family” means parents, spouse, siblings, children or even extended members is not the issue here. What is important is that they are included in the treatment of their loved ones throughout the duration.

6. They Use Innovative Methods of Treatment

Every year more is understood about eating disorders and this additional information leads to innovative treatments and techniques. While proven methods of treatment should be a part of any eating disorder treatment program, there should be room for innovation and out-of-the-box solutions — such as holistic options like art therapy and yoga — to be incorporated into the treatment plan.

What Are the Major Components of Eating Disorder Treatment?

As psychiatric illnesses, eating disorders are treatable using a combination of medical, psychiatric, psychological, and spiritual treatment methodologies. No single component can be the only method used; instead, they combine to form a comprehensive treatment program that addresses all aspects of a client’s recovery. For example, many eating disorders are listed in the DSM-5 (although some are lumped into a catchall category such as OSFED, Other Specified Food, or Eating disorder), but no treatment suggestions are made there. It is simply a guide for diagnosis.

While psychiatry is certainly an important aspect of eating disorder treatment, it is by no means the only one. In particular, psychiatry often includes medications to ease mental health illnesses, such as antidepressants for depression and anti-psychotics designed for borderline personality disorder or schizophrenia. However, there are no medications specifically designed for eating disorders (some medications are useful for co-occurring disorders). In addition to psychiatric approaches, here are some treatment components to look for in a quality eating disorder treatment facility.

1. Nutritional Programs and Education

Eating disorders aren’t really about food. That sounds counterintuitive, but most treatment professionals agree on this point. Instead, they are more about an individual’s relationship with their body, their self-esteem compulsive tendencies, and a drive for perfectionism. That being said, nutrition plays a key role in eating disorder treatment. Many people don’t realize that nutrition affects mental health and brain function as much as it affects the physical condition. It’s well-known that a lack or abundance of certain nutrients can affect things like bone density or insulin production, respectively. But did you know that lack of nutrients can negatively affect synaptic function and decision-making? In essence, eating disorders can actually perpetuate themselves through the nutritional imbalances they create. That’s why a good treatment program places high emphasis on nutrition and nutritional education.

2. Treatment for co-Occurring Disorders

As we mentioned earlier, there is no medication for eating disorders, but some medications can be used for other psychiatric disorders. It so happens that these disorders are commonplace in people with eating disorders. Major depression has been shown to affect people with an eating disorder even more commonly than it does the general population as this 2021 study and countless others have shown. You might think that an eating disorder treatment center should focus entirely on the eating disorder. Although that disorder should be at the forefront, it is essential to treat co-occurring presentations as well. These disorders, such as depression, anxiety disorders, OCD, and others can be both the cause of and a resulting symptom of disordered eating behaviors. A complete continuum of care must necessarily include dual diagnosis treatments – thankfully, a good eating disorder treatment center will have a talented psychiatric staff on hand.

3. Treatment for the Soul as well as for the Mind and Body

First things first – treating the soul doesn’t mean finding religion or embracing any particular cultural construct (although if those things help you, they are welcomed). The soul is more of a nebulous concept in eating disorder treatment, but an essential one nonetheless. A good eating disorder treatment center will not only emphasize proper nutrition, but the joy that comes from eating – luxuriating in the sense of being sated, delighting in the flavors and textures, and sharing the company of others at a meal. These quality-of-life aspects of eating disorder recovery can be difficult at first – as can recapturing a positive relationship with one’s body.

To treat the soul, a good eating disorder treatment program often puts its focus n mindfulness or the concept of simply experiencing the moments of life. Gaining freedom from self-judgment is a huge part of recovery. Being mindful of what you’re doing allows you to simply experience, say eating a hamburger without worrying about calories or thinking you’ll “get fat.” Often, mediation classes are held (in both group and one-on-one settings). These can be carried on well after residential treatment as well; many people in recovery find daily mediation an essential part of maintaining their recovered lifestyle and staying centered.

Getting Treatment Is the Most Important Thing

People with eating disorders and their loved ones might struggle with the overwhelming task of finding a treatment center that works for them.  There are many centers around the country, each with its own philosophy and options. Braving the insurance and payment options can be a challenge in and of itself. However, the simple truth is whether it’s outpatient treatment near you or a residential program across the country, getting help is the key to living a happier, healthier life.

Eating disorders can ruin lives, to be blunt. If they’re not treated, they can severely impact a person’s life. Even though the search for the right program for you might be daunting, in the long run, you’ll be happy you went through with it. Speak to your family, and then your doctor or therapist to find a center that can meet these criteria – sooner rather than later. A recovered life is waiting.

Melissa Orshan Spann, PhD, LMHC, RTY 200, is Chief Clinical Officer at Monte Nido, overseeing the clinical operations and programming for over 50 programs across the U.S. Dr. Spann is a Certified Eating Disorder Specialist and clinical supervisor as well as an accomplished presenter and passionate clinician who has spent her career working in the eating disorder field in higher levels of care. She is a member of the Academy for Eating Disorders and the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals where she serves on the national certification committee, supervision faculty, and is on the board of her local chapter. She received her doctoral degree from Drexel University, master’s degree from the University of Miami, and bachelor’s degree from the University of Florida.