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Learn more about the results we get at Within

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What to look for in an eating disorder therapist

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Seeking treatment for an eating disorder can help you to overcome body image distortions and preoccupation with food and weight, so that you can live a vibrant, fulfilling life. One important part of your treatment program will involve working with a therapist, who can help you to process your emotions, develop strategies for coping with stress, and address unhelpful thinking patterns that contribute to eating disorder behaviors.

While working with a therapist will play a critical role in your recovery process, selecting the right eating disorder therapist can make a significant difference in the quality of care you receive. Below are important factors to consider when deciding on an eating disorder therapist.

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Background and expertise

There are several types of professionals who may identify themselves as being therapists. These include psychologists, social workers, and mental health counselors. While each professional can, within the scope of their practice, provide mental health therapy and counseling, the reality is that the background and expertise of each professional can vary. For instance, some mental health professionals have broad training and treat a variety of mental health conditions.

On the other hand, there are counselors, psychologists, and social workers who have expertise or training specifically in the area of eating disorders. When selecting an eating disorder therapist, it’s often best to choose a professional who is trained specifically in treating eating disorders, or who specializes in eating disorder treatment. While a therapist without specific eating disorder training can provide mental health interventions, they may not be as skilled in treating the nuances of eating disorders.

Health at every size (HAES) orientation 

One benefit of selecting an eating disorder therapist, rather than offering treatment for a broad range of mental health conditions, is that those who specialize in eating disorder treatment are more likely to identify with the Health at Every Size (HAES) movement. The HAES movement promotes flexible eating that is based upon hunger and nutritional needs rather than weight control, as well as respect for people of differing body sizes, including those in larger bodies. The movement also supports equal access to healthcare services and information, enjoyable physical activity, and fighting against weight stigma. (1)

Given that the HAES movement seeks to end weight-based stigma and restrictive eating practices, incorporating its principles into eating disorder therapy can be helpful. Promoting intuitive eating practices and the belief that someone can be healthy regardless of body type, size, and shape can help individuals with eating disorders to change their unhelpful thoughts surrounding food, weight, and body image.

Research has shown that taking a course on Health at Every Size improves anti-fat stigma, body esteem, and intuitive eating. (2) Furthermore, weight stigma has been associated with eating disorder behaviors, so utilizing therapeutic approaches originating from HAES principles can be effective in treating eating disorders. (3) If you’re looking for an eating disorder therapist, one who is familiar with and embraces HAES principles is likely to be a suitable choice. 

Evidence-based practices

In addition to demonstrating expertise in treating eating disorders and inclusivity of all body sizes and types, an eating disorder therapist should be using evidence-based practices. This means that they are using therapeutic techniques that are known to be effective for eating disorders, and they are not simply based upon conjecture or theory. 

When seeking an eating disorder therapist, it is beneficial to ask them about the techniques that they use, as well as whether these techniques are supported by research. Some evidence-based practices that an eating disorder therapist may use include family therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, psychodynamic therapy, and interpersonal therapy. It is also recommended, based upon research evidence, that therapists collaborate with other professionals, including dietitians, to ensure that patients receive comprehensive care. (4)

Accessibility and inclusivity 

An eating disorder therapist who meets your needs should be both accessible and inclusive. This means that they are available to provide services, and they make you feel welcomed, rather than turned away. Your therapist will probably be treating multiple clients and will not be available to you around-the-clock, but you should be able to reach them regularly to schedule consistent appointments. If you go weeks without hearing from them or being able to reach them, this is a red flag.

Similarly, inclusivity means that your therapist will treat you with dignity and respect, regardless of your size, cultural background, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, or disability status. You may even seek to find a therapist who shares a common identity. It’s critical to find a therapist who accepts your unique life experiences and provides you with unconditional positive regard. 

Cost

Cost can unfortunately be a limiting factor when seeking eating disorder treatment, so it’s important to make sure eating disorder therapy is affordable. Most therapists will accept insurance plans, but you should verify that they accept your specific insurance before scheduling an appointment. You can also consult with your insurance company to determine what providers are covered under your plan. If you do not have private insurance, you can inquire if an eating disorder therapist accepts government-provided insurance plans.

Some therapists offer flexible payment plans or income-based services to those who do not have insurance or who demonstrate financial need. You may benefit from seeking an eating disorder therapist who offers these methods of payment. Some therapists may offer telehealth options, which can be more affordable than in-person treatment, if this option is a good fit for you.

At Within, we provide virtual eating disorder care to you at home, or on the go. We are your personal eating disorder treatment team, made up of nurses, therapists, dieticians, and care partners. We are here for you at every stage, in treatment, aftercare, and recovery, to meet you with radical self-love and acceptance.

Disclaimer about "overeating": Within Health hesitatingly uses the word "overeating" because it is the term currently associated with this condition in society, however, we believe it inherently overlooks the various psychological aspects of this condition which are often interconnected with internalized diet culture, and a restrictive mindset about food. For the remainder of this piece, we will therefore be putting "overeating" in quotations to recognize that the diagnosis itself pathologizes behavior that is potentially hardwired and adaptive to a restrictive mindset.

Resources

  1. The health at every size® (HAES®) principles. ASDAH. (2022, April 22). Retrieved December 21, 2022, from https://asdah.org/health-at-every-size-haes-approach/ 
  2. Humphrey, L., Clifford, D., & Morris, M. N. (2015, March 11). Health at every size college course reduces dieting behaviors and improves intuitive eating, body esteem, and anti-fat attitudes. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior. Retrieved December 21, 2022, from https://www.jneb.org/article/S1499-4046(15)00011-1/fulltext 
  3. Rollison, A. (2021). Integrating an intuitive eating and Health at Every Size framework into eating disorder nutrition counseling: A case report (Unpublished master’s thesis). University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC. 
  4. Hilbert, A. Hoek, H.W., Schmidt, R. (2017). Evidence-based guidelines for eating disorders: International comparison. Current Opinion in Psychiatry, 30(6), 423-437. Retrieved December 21, 2022 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5690314/

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