Treatment Modalities

Treatment is based on a combination of psychotherapy, medication, and nutritional counseling. Goals include restoration of healthy body weight, correction of medical complications, adoption of healthful eating habits and treatment of maladaptive food-related thought processes, treatment of coexisting psychiatric conditions, and prevention of relapse. Depending on the severity of the illness, therapy may be conducted on an outpatient, day treatment, or inpatient basis.

Outpatient therapy. Outpatient therapy provided by practitioners specializing in eating disorders is appropriate for highly motivated patients within 20 percent of their normal body weight and whose illness is mild or just developing. Treatment consists of cognitive-behavioral therapy, intensive nutritional counseling, support-group referrals, and medical monitoring. At the outset of treatment, a contract is established, outlining an anticipated rate of weight gain (usually between 0.5 and 2 pounds per week), target goal weight, and consequences if weight gain is not achieved. Vitamin and mineral supplementation and the use of liquid supplements to facilitate weight gain may also be indicated.

Day treatment programs. Day treatment programs are being used with increasing frequency in place of inpatient hospitalization. This form of therapy provides an intermediate level of care for patients who require frequent monitoring but do not require treatment twenty-four hours a day. It may be used for patients who are not responding to outpatient therapy or who are stepping down from inpatient hospitalization. Treatment, which may take place four or five days per week from morning until evening, is similar in structure to outpatient therapy, but is provided on a more intensive level.

obesity: the condition of being overweight, according to established norms based on sex, age, and height

Idealized images of thinness can cause body dissatisfaction, which may lead to eating disorders. Such disorders may also be encouraged by professions that require a certain body type, such as modeling or gymnastics. [Photograph by George De Sota. AP/Wide World Photos. Reproduced by permission.]

Christy Henrich, a member of the U.S. gymnastics team, narrowly missed making the Olympics in 1988. Some say Henrich's anguish over that failure caused the eating disorder that killed her six years later, when she weighed less than fifty pounds. [AP/Wide World Photos. Reproduced by permission.]

Inpatient hospitalization. Inpatient hospitalization is indicated for patients whose eating disorder has reached life-threatening status. Criteria for admission to such programs are weight loss of 25 percent or more of ideal body weight or the presence of an eating disorder in a child or adolescent. It may also be necessary for individuals who are medically unstable. Usually, participants in inpatient programs are anorexic, although hospitaliza-tion for bulimia may be necessary if there is serious deterioration of vital signs, uncontrollable vomiting, or concurrent psychiatric illness.

The immediate goals of inpatient treatment are weight gain and stabilization of vital signs. In many cases, the patient is so fragile that complete bed rest is required. Eating is gently encouraged. In extreme medical situations refusal may be met with tube feeding or, in rare instances, intravenously.

Medication. Medication is increasingly becoming a routine part of treatment for eating disorders. Antidepressants, particularly the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), are the most effective and most commonly used medication in treating this spectrum of illnesses. They are found to be of greatest benefit when used in combination with therapy, and are of little value if offered on their own. In the case of anorexia, these medications are most effective if employed after successful weight restoration is achieved, at which time they can be useful for relapse prevention and the treatment of coexisting psychiatric conditions. SSRIs are also used in preventing binge relapses among bulimics, although their effectiveness ceases once the medication is discontinued. Although antidepressants have also been employed in the treatment of binge eating disorder, outcomes have not been sufficiently positive to warrant recommendations for their use.

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