CBT for Eating Disorders: How Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Can Help in Managing Eating Disorders

Thursday, November 16 2023

If you have an eating disorder, you know how much it can affect your mental and physical health. From feelings of low self-esteem to negative thoughts and compulsive behaviors, having an eating disorder takes its toll on your wellbeing and can affect all aspects of your life. Eating disorders can affect anyone regardless of gender, age, race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, body shape, or weight. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, 28.8 million Americans will experience an eating disorder at some point in their lives. Yet many people with an eating disorder do not seek professional treatment out of shame, fear, or stigma. 

If you or a loved one is struggling with an eating disorder, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for eating disorders can help a person build the skills they need to reach or maintain recovery and avoid setbacks.

Here, we’ll take a closer look at CBT for eating disorders and how it can help individuals recover and regain their lives.‍

What is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)?

CBT is a type of psychotherapy that helps individuals identify damaging thoughts and behaviors and work toward positive changes. It focuses on the link between our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. This therapy helps people identify their specific thought patterns and how they affect their emotions and behaviors towards food, exercise, and body image. It aims to help people gain healthy eating behaviors, and recognize and change distorted thoughts that lead to eating disorder behaviors.

CBT refers to one specific therapeutic approach, and while this approach can be customized to fit the needs of individual people, it’s still the same type of therapy being used. However, there are several treatment methods commonly used along with CBT. These CBT-compatible techniques give therapists additional tools and more flexibility during therapy sessions. These other methods are typically what people are referring to when discussing types of cognitive behavioral therapy — however, it’s important to keep in mind that there are not different types of CBT.

Depending on your situation, your therapist may also recommend:

  • Family-based therapy. With this therapy, family members help you relearn healthy eating patterns and achieve a healthy weight until you can do it on your own. 
  • Group cognitive behavioral therapy. This therapy involves meeting with a psychologist or other mental health professional along with others who are diagnosed with an eating disorder. The goal is to help you address thoughts, feelings, and behaviors related to your eating disorder, build skills to manage symptoms, and regain healthy eating patterns.

Why is CBT an effective treatment for eating disorders? 

Research has shown that CBT is highly effective for the treatment of eating disorders. CBT specifically targets diet and eating behavior, and helps individuals develop coping mechanisms when confronted with triggers that may lead to unhealthy behavior. When coupled with other treatment methods, including nutritional counseling and medication (if needed), CBT can help people achieve long-lasting recovery.

Whether you’re considering getting help for an eating disorder for the first time, think you may be experiencing a relapse, or are doing well in recovery, talk therapy can help you build the skills you need to overcome setbacks and relapses and stay on the right path to reach or maintain recovery. If you aren’t currently working with a therapist or mental health professional, seeking therapy from a licensed professional who specializes in eating disorders is a key first step on your recovery journey. 

CBT is a short-term and structured approach that can help you: 

  • Normalize your eating patterns and achieve a healthy weight
  • Replace unhealthy habits with healthy ones
  • Learn how to monitor your eating 
  • Develop problem-solving skills
  • Explore healthy ways to cope with stressful situations
  • Improve your relationships and mood

CBT techniques for eating disorders

In your first few sessions with your therapist, they’ll get to know you a bit better, assess your symptoms, and provide a diagnosis. If you feel they’re the right fit for you, you’ll continue to work with your therapist to set goals and develop a treatment plan to help you build the skills you need to get on track to achieve your goals and enter recovery. If you feel they aren’t the right fit, it’s okay and it is recommended to look for a different therapist. Your therapist will understand and can help you connect with someone who may be a better fit. 

When you’ve decided on your chosen therapist, your therapist will engage you in a process of self-exploration to identify the underlying causes of your eating disorder. You will learn techniques to help you change your negative thought patterns and behaviors. With the help of your therapist, you will work to develop healthy social and coping skills. The goal is to enable you to manage your moods and emotions effectively.

CBT for eating disorders involves setting short-term goals and making adjustments to reach each goal. It focuses on the behavioral and cognitive adjustments needed to establish healthy functioning. Your therapist may give you worksheets, tasks, and homework during and outside of therapy. Additionally, many therapists will ask that you keep a journal to track any distorted or critical thinking. The length of therapy will depend on a person’s unique situation.

In addition to a therapist, a nutritionist, primary care provider,, and psychiatrist are usually part of the person’s care team. SonderMind licensed mental health professionals experienced in CBT for eating disorders are ready to help you toward recovery. Just let us know what you’re looking for in a therapist, and we can connect you with a licensed professional who specializes in eating disorders within 48 hours.. 

What types of eating disorders can CBT help with? 

CBT can help people overcome common common eating disorders such as:

  1. Anorexia nervosa: Characterized by weight loss (or lack of appropriate weight gain in growing children), difficulties maintaining an appropriate body weight for height, age, and stature, and distorted body image
  2. Bulimia nervosa: Characterized by a cycle of binge eating and compensatory behaviors such as self-induced vomiting or excessive exercising designed to undo or compensate for the effects of binge eating
  3. Binge eating disorder: Characterized by recurrent episodes of eating large quantities of food, feeling a loss of control during the binge, experiencing shame, distress, or guilt afterwards, and not regularly trying to counter the binge eating through unhealthy compensatory behaviors like purging
  4. Orthorexia: Characterized by an obsession with proper or “healthful” eating that may include compulsive checking of ingredient lists and nutritional labels, cutting out an increasing number of food groups, or an inability to eat anything but a narrow group of foods that are deemed “healthy” or “pure” 
  5. Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder (OSFED): Encompasses individuals who do not meet strict criteria for anorexia or bulimia but still have a significant eating disorder

What are other effective treatments for eating disorders? 

​​In addition to talk therapy, nutritional counseling, medical, and psychiatric monitoring may be a part of your treatment plan. This may mean you have a care team working together with you on your treatment. If your eating disorder symptoms are severe, treatment may involve residential care (24-hour care at a live-in facility) or in-patient care (a continuum of care 24 hours a day in a hospital setting). The therapy and treatment that’s right for you will depend on your unique situation. 

Seek professional help from SonderMind

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, it’s important to seek help from a mental health professional. At SonderMind, licensed mental health professionals experienced in CBT for eating disorders are ready to help you on a safe and effective path toward recovery. Tell us a little bit about what you’re looking for in a therapist, and we can connect you with a licensed professional who specializes in eating disorders to help you get on track toward recovery. Remember, you are not alone. We’ve got you. 

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