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Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in the Treatment of Eating Disorders

Updated on October 13, 2015

Treating Eating Disorders Using CBT

Eating disorders are difficult to treat, but with the use of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, patients find that they are able to learn new ways to think about food. While patients often fear food, it is possible to retrain the brain by understanding that thought patterns can be changed.

What we all believe about life and living is what we would call our core beliefs. These beliefs are how we see the world, and changing this lens through which we look can be a daunting task. By learning CBT, it is possible to change these core beliefs, creating a healthier relationship with food overall.

Common Cognitive Distortions with a person suffering from an eating disorder include:

  • Black and White Thinking
  • Overgeneralization
  • Filtering (focusing on negativity)
  • Jumping to Conclusions
  • Catastrophizing
  • Emotional Reasoning
  • Shoulds
  • Labeling
  • Personalization
  • Blaming Others
  • Blaming Self


What are Types of Eating Disorders?

Eating disorders are classified by clinicians using several primary labels with specific sub-labels. People are diagnosed with anorexia, which is food restriction that causes body mass index (BMI) to go below 85% of the optimal level for the height and gender of the person.

Those diagnosed with anorexia have a distorted body image, believing they are fat when they are markedly underweight. They can look in the mirror and not see what everyone else sees. This is a hallmark of anorexia, believing that you are a large person no matter what you are told.

Many people that suffer from anorexia can't control their food restrictions 100%, and they turn to purging when they feel guilty for eating foods that they believe they should not have. This means the person would be diagnosed with anorexia with purging or bulimic tendencies.

Bulimia Nervosa is another common diagnosis for people with eating disorders. A patient suffering from bulimia is stuck in a pattern of eating food and then purging after their meal in order to not digest the calories. While many bulimic patients are restrictive in their food choices as well, a primary diagnosis of bulimia means that the person is eating and purging their food on a regular basis.

Disordered Eating Poll

Have you ever made yourself throw up because you felt you ate too much?

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How Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Works

Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, is a type of therapy that is used for a broad spectrum of disorders. In this type of therapy, five different aspects are considered as part of the whole picture or problem. Each problem can be broken down into: situations, emotions, physical effects, thoughts and actions.

The goal of CBT is to understand that all five of these aspects are interconnected and can have a direct effect on each other. For example, if you are having negative thoughts about a certain situation, you can feel physically ill and emotionally withdrawn. The idea is that by gaining a better understanding of one's thoughts, it's possible to react differently to a situation.

The premise is basically, you are what you think you are. If you think you are going to fail at something, you will fail. CBT teaches a more positive outlook, and is a solution oriented type of therapy.

The Documentary THIN

The Pervasiveness of Eating Disorders

Most people engage in some form of disordered eating during the course of a regular day. It does not mean that you suffer from an eating disorder if you decide to eat ice cream for breakfast, or you eat too much food in one sitting. Eating disorders are marked by a poor relationship with food, a belief that one is going to gain weight after one meal, and a distorted body image. Food is seen as the enemy when one suffers from an eating disorder, and this is a very real feeling for those that are suffering.

In the United States, women and men are trained to believe that thin is beautiful. That the only way to be happy in life is to lose ten more pounds, to fit into that perfect pair of jeans, to look just like everyone else.

The obsession we have with dieting only makes the pervasiveness of eating disorders more prevalent in today's society. While safe dieting is good to maintain a proper weight, eating disorders develop fairly easily when one is inundated with too much pressure to lose a few more pounds.

Focusing on mindful eating, eating for the sake of fueling the body, will help everyone attain and maintain a healthier, more robust size and shape.

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