5 Key Elements of Successful Eating Disorder Treatment

By: Tricia Greaves

If you suffer from an eating disorder or obesity and are searching for a solution, it's important to know that not all help is equal. Eating disorder treatment is extremely expensive ($1,000 a day) and so is on-going therapy. And how can you be sure that the treatment you are seeking will work?

Having been helping people with eating disorders, weight loss and addictions for 20 years, and having overcome an eating disorder myself, I have identified 5 key points that I believe are crucial for successful treatment. When researching your options, have this checklist available. The closer your options come to meeting these criteria, the better your chance of success.

1. Be cautious of "cures".
Despite having lived free from the food problem for 20 years I don't consider myself cured. "Cured" is a tricky term so I suggest that before you buy anyone's claim to "cure" you of your eating disorder you do a little detective work. An anorexic who gains weight and a bulimic stop stops purging may be considered "cured". So may an obese person who loses significant weight.

My experience with all eating disorders is that eliminating the immediate symptom does not end the more persistent compulsion and obsession with food and weight - another significant component of the problem. A life time of obsession and dependence on the eating disorder as a life coping tool cannot be cured in 30 days. This doesn't mean someone has to struggle with food the rest of their lives either. But recovery requires vigilance in self-awareness and self improvement. Don't be tempted by a "quick fix". Seek a real solution based on ongoing inner and outer change and you will come to appreciate the life lessons the eating disorder is here to teach you.

2. Seek help from those who have "been there".
We have been used to being told by well meaning therapists, doctors, dieticians and coaches to just "eat less, exercise more, moderate your portions, etc." It's sound advice but close to impossible to follow at times if you're a real emotional eater. There is a "disconnect" when you are trying to get help from someone who doesn't truly know how you feel. Somebody who has not lived the hell you are living (the self-hatred, the insanity of the food obsession and the powerlessness to control oneself, etc.) will have trouble reaching you because in the back of your mind you are thinking: "they don't really understand". It's too easy to tune them out - feeling even more isolated and alone with our problems than ever.

The bottom line is that getting help from those who have actually "been there" and overcome it (that's important) is the only way to receive help in the deepest way. Not only will the information make sense because it's based on personal experience and not book knowledge (which has never worked for us) but it will penetrate into our hearts. Our hearts open when we believe that those who are helping us truly understand what we are going through.

3. Help must have a spiritual component.
Much of the help available today primarily addresses the psychological and physical aspects of eating disorders. Unfortunately, this isn't enough. People spend years in therapy and working with dieticians yet continue to harm themselves with food. Their brains are filled with sound psychological insight as well as information about calories, exercise, eating schedules and nutrition, yet they continue to give in to cravings for hamburgers and ice cream!

The truth is that eating disorders, emotional eating and addictions are driven by a soul-sickness that no amount of intellectual understanding or personal will power can heal. A person must be given spiritual tools they can use and rely on when their own personal resources fail. It's important to note that there is a difference between spirituality and religion, and in this case I'm suggesting the use of the former. By being encouraged to cultivate a belief in a higher power that is loving and ever-available for support and strength, a person can begin to depend on that power for the intervention and grace that can help them stop their destructive behavior.

4. The solution must address the underlying causes.
There is no hope of overcoming an eating disorder without looking beyond the eating disorder. Obsession with food and weight and other addictions are symptoms of deeper problems. They conveniently distract us from extreme unhappiness and self-loathing that lie underneath the surface. Any treatment program that focuses on primarily on food, body image and weight management is missing the point.

A person must be supported in looking at the cause of the self-loathing and subsequent self-destruction. (We don't ever just happen to hate ourselves.) We are engaging in destructive thoughts and actions that cause us to believe we deserve punishment. By changing these thoughts and actions (most of which have little to do with food and body) we can feel deserving of better self-care. Anyone who has struggled for more than a few years with an eating disorder, if honest, will be able to admit that their problem really isn't about food. Finding a program that reinforces this and addresses the real problem is essential.

5. Recovery includes changing your life.
How we live determines how we feel about ourselves. How we feel about ourselves determines how we eat. Therefore, in order to eat differently we have to live differently. Many treatment centers consider a person to be "cured", or well on their way, if their symptoms of anorexia, bulimia or obesity lessen while in treatment. (If anorexic, they gain a few pounds; if bulimic, their episodes decrease or stop; and if obese, they lose some weight.) The problem is that they eventually have to leave treatment and return to the same life that perpetuated or caused their problem in the first place. This is why relapse is so common.

Eating disorders are a symptom of living a life that is severely out of balance. Recovery comes when a person makes concrete, significant changes in her life. Change must be deeper than body behavior and diet. Change includes communication, thoughts, relating to people, priorities and attitude. There is no 30 day program that will automatically cause a person to overcome an eating disorder or help a person lose weight for good. It is the hard, but necessary, ongoing changes in one's life that enable a person to break free. Be sure that the help you seek isn't skin-deep. There is no success without a commitment to real life change.

Bonus: It needs to work!
"Does the treatment work?" Believe it or not, people forget to consider this critical question when evaluating options. They also forget to ask this of themselves after receiving help. People turn to treatment centers, doctors and counselors for answers but never stop to ask if the help they are receiving is actually making a dent in their actual behaviors. They may feel comforted, supported and heard, but is it actually changing their symptoms? And if the answer is "yes", ask how much are the symptoms changing. Most people feel that going from purging 7 times a day to 3 is good enough. But how good can one's quality of life be when one is still purging (or bingeing) at all? I am well aware that progress of any kind is never to be discounted. However, I have had the privilege of routinely witnessing people's symptoms being removed completely. In light of the knowledge that a person can be totally free of their eating disorder, settling for "a little less self-destruction" doesn't seem like such a great deal after all. Be sure that the help you're seeking isn't just a "feel-good" measure, but an actual solution that shows results.

These 5 (and a bonus) key elements for seeking help for eating disorders are crucial for true success. Many people search for decades and spend thousands of dollars on programs that don't give them results. It's easy to let the desperation of this disease drive you to spend money now and ask questions later. It's important to let your head and intuition - not your emotions- make your decision. You deserve to be (and can be) totally free from your problems. While only you can issue the permit for freedom, getting the right help along the way can make all the difference in the world.

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