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Treatment Options for Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia nervosa is one of the most common and well-known eating disorders, affecting millions of people across the United States. When someone is diagnosed with this disorder, effective treatment is essential. Without treatment, many people who have anorexia nervosa will face serious complications that can continue to progress over time. Fortunately, a variety of treatment options are available to individuals with anorexia nervosa at eating disorder treatment centers throughout the country.

Choosing the right approach to treatment involves comparing all options carefully to determine which facility, program and approach fits best with the individual client’s needs and preferences. Below is some information to help potential clients and their loved ones better understand anorexia and the different treatment options that may be available.

About Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder that is typically defined when an individual has a very low body weight. Individuals with anorexia nervosa tend to be obsessed with maintaining a low weight and often experience an intense fear of gaining any weight. They may also have a distorted perception of their weight, believing themselves to be heavier than they are in actuality.

The symptoms an individual may experience are related to a lack of adequate nutrition and calories. Common symptoms include very low weight, dizziness, fainting, fatigue, swelling in the arms and legs, dehydration, low blood pressure, difficulty tolerating cold temperatures, dry skin, thin brittle hair and the absence of menstruation. Friends and family may also notice the individual eats very little or exercises excessively. Psychological symptoms of anorexia nervosa include social withdrawal, lack of emotion and irritability.

When anorexia nervosa is left untreated, it can lead to severe and even fatal complications. The lack of adequate nutrition over time may cause health problems such as anemia, electrolyte imbalances, gastrointestinal problems, kidney dysfunction, loss of muscle, loss of bone and heart problems. In the worst cases, these complications can cause death.

Treatment Program Structures for Anorexia Nervosa

Treatment programs at an eating disorder recovery center come in several different forms. Choosing the right program structure is important for any individual working toward recovery. The two main structures available are residential and day treatment programs. A residential program provides continuous twenty four hour per day care for the duration of treatment. The client will complete all therapies and live in a supported home-link environment at the eating disorder recovery center. In a day treatment program, clients visit the treatment center only when they are actively participating in the program. When they are not in treatment, they are permitted to leave the facility and continue everyday activities.

Both residential and day treatment programs have advantages for clients and their families. In a residential treatment program, clients with anorexia nervosa benefit from more structure and more intensive treatment experience. There is also typically a higher level of compliance, which potentially increases the likelihood of achieving a successful eating disorder recovery.

Day programs may not be as intensive, but instead, provide a needed level of support to clients stepping down from a residential program or those in outpatient therapy that need a higher level of support. When a client is enrolled in a day treatment eating disorder recovery program, he or she can continue to work and live at home. If any triggers or difficult situations arise, the client has the support and structure of the day treatment program to help them remain on the path to recovery.

Length of Treatment

The amount of time an individual will need to spend in treatment to recover from an eating disorder will vary. While some clients may only need a few weeks of intensive treatment, others may need to complete a lengthy residential treatment program and then transition to a day treatment program.

Approach to Treatment

Different treatment programs employ different treatment approaches for anorexia nervosa. Some of the approaches that may be utilized include:

  • Holistic treatment programs: Holistic treatment programs aim to address every aspect of an eating disorder. These programs view the client as a “whole person”, and include therapies designed to treat the client’s mind, body and spirit as he or she recovers from anorexia nervosa.
  • Co-occurring programs: In some cases, an individual who has anorexia nervosa will also suffer from another disorder, such as a substance use disorder or another mental health problem. Co-occurring treatment approaches are designed to treat both disorders at the same time, as these disorders can perpetuate one another.
  • Alternative treatment programs: Some treatment programs have developed their own unique approach to the treatment of anorexia nervosa and may focus on alternative treatments not commonly used by other facilities, such as adventure therapy.

Specific Therapies

Regardless of the basic approach to anorexia nervosa treatment used at an eating disorder treatment center, most treatment programs employ more than one therapy to help clients overcome their disorder. The exact selection of therapies used will vary by facility. However, some of the most common therapies that may be used in the treatment of anorexia nervosa include:

  • Individual therapy: Many eating disorder treatment programs offer individual therapy, which involves meeting with an eating disorder therapist one-on-one to discuss issues related to the disorder, such as the factors that may have led to the development of anorexia nervosa, or exploring coping skills for dealing with potential triggers.
  • Behavioral therapies: Some eating disorder treatment centers use behavioral therapies to help clients change irrational or negative behaviors that have contributed to the development or the maintenance of anorexia nervosa. The most common examples of behavioral therapies include cognitive behavioral therapy and dialectical behavioral therapy.
  • Group therapy:In group therapy, clients with anorexia nervosa interact with one another to discuss their disorders, provide and receive support. Group therapy sessions are moderated by a trained eating disorder therapist.
  • Family therapy:Anorexia nervosa treatment is often more successful when the client’s family and loved ones are involved in the treatment process. Family therapy involves inviting family members to the facility to participate in therapeutic sessions, either with or without the client. The purpose of family involvement may be to educate family members, discuss relationship issues or teach family members how to provide effective support to their loved one both during and after treatment.
  • Experiential therapies:Some eating disorder treatment programs include experiential therapies, which are alternative therapies that allow clients to express their creativity. Some of the most common examples include dance, art, music and psychodrama therapies.
  • Nutrition education and counseling: Most clients with anorexia nervosa have nutritional deficits. The purpose of nutrition education and counseling is to help clients address their nutritional deficits and adopt appropriate eating habits that will continue even after they leave treatment. Nutrition education will also teach clients to better understand and meet their bodies’ needs.
  • Mindful movement: Mindful movement is important for everyone, but many individuals with anorexia nervosa are either too weak to participate in these types of activities. Mindful movement, such as nature walks or yoga, are slowly re-integrated into the client’s lives and teach the clients to connect with their bodies and appreciate the different forms of movement. For clients who have a history of excessive exercise, the dietitian will work with the client to recognize the difference between mindful movement and excessive exercise.
  • Spirituality: Individuals with anorexia nervosa may benefit from therapies and other activities designed to enhance and support their spirituality. Examples include yoga, meditation and religious experiences.
  • Life skills and career counseling: Life skills and a reliable career can add stability to an individual’s life, which can be helpful for clients with eating disorders. Life skills training in treatment is designed to help clients develop these skills. Career counseling may also be available to clients who could benefit from this service.
  • Medical care: For many clients, anorexia nervosa can lead to serious health problems. Many anorexia nervosa treatment facilities offer medical care as an essential component of treatment. Medical care may include nursing care, visits with a physician, psychiatric services and medication management.

It is important to look for an anorexia nervosa treatment program that will customize the treatment experience to meet the needs of the individual client.


After completing treatment, many clients will benefit from ongoing eating disorder support. This support sometimes referred to as “aftercare,” is not available at every treatment facility. Some eating disorder treatment facilities will offer more aftercare services than others; examples of aftercare services may include day therapy, support groups and related services.

Why You Should Be Selective About Eating Disorder Treatment

With so many programs available, it can be overwhelming for potential clients and/or their family members. However, being selective about eating disorder treatment is an important step as high quality anorexia nervosa treatment can support your loved one on the path to recovery. To make the best choice, potential clients and their family members should carefully review the program structure, approach to treatment and specific services available. Clients and their families should also consider the location of different facilities and the payment options available. In addition, clients planning to enter anorexia nervosa treatment should research the reputations and success rates of different facilities to learn more about the quality of care provided.

Monte Nido is a full-service eating disorder treatment facility. We offer both residential treatment and day treatment to meet the needs of each client and all of our treatment programs are customized to maximize effectiveness for each individual we treat. For the convenience of clients and their families, we have locations in California, New York, Oregon, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. To learn more about treatment at Monte Nido, please contact our facility today.