Because the reasons behind eating disorders are individualized, they can be complex and often require a multilayered approach for those living with eating disorders to succeed. In addition, eating disorders are frequently accompanied by concurrent mental health diagnoses, adding further complexity to effective treatment.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is an approach that explores many factors related to the client’s relationship with food. It has proven to be one of the most effective responses in ensuring long-lasting recovery from an eating disorder.
What is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), and How Does It Help Treat Eating Disorders?
CBT is a type of psychotherapy that focuses on helping individuals identify and change negative thought patterns and behaviors (1). It can be a highly effective approach for treating eating disorders, which often involve a distorted body image, negative self-talk, and disordered eating behaviors.
In CBT, the therapist works with the client to explore the underlying thoughts and beliefs contributing to their eating disorder. The therapist may help the client recognize and challenge negative self-talk or self-defeating behaviors. By reframing thoughts and beliefs, the client can learn to view themselves and their bodies more positively (2).
CBT can also help individuals with eating disorders identify and change behaviors contributing to their disordered eating. For example, a client may learn to adopt healthier coping mechanisms for dealing with stress and emotions rather than binge eating or purging. The therapist may also work with the client to develop a beneficial relationship with food and their body, such as learning to eat regular meals and practicing self-care (3).
How Does Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) Differ from Other Forms of Therapy for Eating Disorders?
CBT, while used to treat many psychiatric illnesses, is particularly useful in eating disorder treatment and may be more effective than other treatments. This effectiveness is because CBT addresses underlying or concurrent mental health issues, creating a layer of complexity for the person suffering from an eating disorder. For instance, a person living with anorexia may also have anxiety. Both conditions share similarities in diagnostic criteria and manifestation. However, only treating one condition will not resolve the other. CBT considers not only individual behaviors related to food and the client’s relationship with it but also the underlying resistance to change, which can impact clients living with eating disorders (4).
It is crucial to note that CBT is just one component of a comprehensive treatment plan for eating disorders. Medication, nutrition therapy, and other evidence-based treatments may also support recovery.
What Can I Expect During Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) Sessions for an Eating Disorder?
In addition to one-on-one therapy sessions, CBT may involve group therapy or other support groups. This strategy can provide a supportive community for individuals with eating disorders, allowing them to connect with others facing similar challenges.
In sessions, clients learn to identify, change and manage the thoughts, feelings, and attitudes causing distress (2).
CBT is a valuable tool for treating individuals with eating disorders. By helping individuals to identify and change negative thoughts and behaviors, CBT can support the development of a nutritional relationship with food. If you’re ready to see if CBT can work for you, connect with us at 562-434-6007 or complete our contact form.
- Society of Clinical Psychology. (n.d.). Cognitive behavioral therapy for anorexia nervosa. https://div12.org/treatment/cognitive-behavioral-therapy-for-anorexia-nervosa/
- Centre for Addictions and Mental Health Canada. (n.d.). Cognitive behavioural therapy. https://www.camh.ca/en/health-info/mental-illness-and-addiction-index/cognitive-behavioural-therapy
- Bellwood EHN Canada. (n.d.). Concurrent inpatient eating disorders and mental health treatment. https://www.eatingdisorderstreatment.ca/
- Murphy, R., Straebler, S., Cooper, Z., & Fairburn, C.G. (2010). Cognitive behavioral therapy for eating disorders. The Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 33(3):611-27. doi: 10.1016/j.psc.2010.04.004
Kim English is a Nursing Professor and has been teaching nurses at the undergraduate and postgraduate level since 2002. Kim has supported a family member through the lived experience of eating disorders and works to advocate for support in rural areas.