Alternative Treatments for Eating Disorders

Alternative Treatments for Eating Disorders


Treatments for an eating disorder depend on many factors. The person’s current situation and the specific eating disorder they’re experiencing usually make up the bulk of any doctor-prescribed plan. Your dedication to getting well and your personal history with eating disorders is also important.

Traditional treatment for eating disorders
Meeting one-on-one with a counselor or in a group is a form of cognitive behavioral treatment. This can help with disrupting cycles of negative thoughts and feelings towards food. Over time, you’ll develop the skills to refrain from former eating habits. Some medications, such as antidepressants or mood stabilizers, may also help your journey.

In most cases, your doctor will recommend a combination of treatments, including one-on-on or group counseling, and medications. Some people find alternative treatments as a helpful boost to more traditional therapies that their doctor recommends.

Many people with eating disorders find these treatments helpful in improving their condition. Read on to learn what alternative therapies people have used in their recovery journey.

What alternative treatments may help?

Discuss any alternative therapies you want to try with your health team first. Your doctor can help you assess the benefits and risks. They may also want to supervise your alternative treatments to identify any side effects or potential problems.

Body awareness therapy

Aware of more space in my body and more aware of how I hold my body in space. #andsoitgrows

A photo posted by Hi! I'm Erin (@erintron) on

This study suggests that basic body awareness therapy is a therapeutic tool. Body awareness therapy is a program that focuses on quality movement awareness. After going through treatment, people with anorexia, bulimia, and unspecified eating disorders reported reduced body and self-awareness. Many of the treatments listed below also help with body awareness.


Yoga can help reduce stress levels and lead to clearer thinking. Yoga is a low-impact exercise with slow movements that help people become more ‘in tune’ with their body. One study saw that women reported significantly changes in:

  • positive feelings and sense of well-being
  • less self-objectification
  • more positive body image
  • fewer poor eating habits

This study was done in comparison to women who did not practice yoga.


Acupuncture is a form of traditional Chinese medicine. An acupuncturist inserts fine, sterile needles into specific points in your body. The goal is to improve your overall health. Research shows that incorporating several sessions of acupuncture alongside existing eating disorder treatments can significantly improve:

  • symptoms of depression
  • physical health
  • mental health
  • sense of control and social support

Some people prefer acupuncture because it’s a drug-free treatment.

Relaxation therapy

Getting a massage may help with improving your personal outlook on life and lead to more positive attitudes towards recovery. Massage therapy can increase levels of serotonin and dopamine. It also decreases levels of depression, anxiety, and stress.

In one study, women with anorexia nervosa received massage therapy twice a week for five weeks. After their sessions, they had:

  • lower stress hormones
  • decreases in body dissatisfaction
  • increased dopamine and norepinephrine levels

There may also be similar benefits from other relaxation therapies such as aromatherapy or meditation. One study found that mindful meditation can:

  • reduce emotional and binge eating
  • increase self-acceptance
  • improve awareness of your body’s hunger cues
  • help with anxiety, addiction, and pain management

The data for weight loss from this calming practice isn’t consistent. That’s because weight loss is dependent on other factors.


For some people, seeing the clinical and scientific evidence of their efforts may lead to even more positive outcomes.

In one pilot study, people with various eating disorders found heart rate variability (HRV) biofeedback useful.

Results of HRV 
Strongly decreased anxiety47 percent
Somewhat decreased anxiety35 percent
Neutral17 percent

HRV biofeedback encourages slow meditative breathing by displaying your heart rate as a wave on a digital display. More evidence may be needed to prove the effectiveness of biofeedback.

Building lifestyle habits to help reach your goal

An important part of recovering from an eating disorder is learning how to maintain better overall health. Incorporating healthy lifestyle habits and choices may help with managing an eating disorder.

These steps can include:

  • practicing self-care such as regular exercise, maintaining meals, and sleep
  • sticking to your treatment plan
  • engaging in social activities with friends and family
  • reading self-help books
  • not focusing on the scale or the mirror

Where can you find support?

Seek out professionals

A doctor, therapist, or other health professionals can help you or someone you know establish new routines. They can also refer other resources and community services for information and support.

If you can’t find the right dietitian, online resources can help with developing a healthy meal plan. A free website, “Ask the Dietitian,” by registered dietitian Joanne Larsen helps build out a healthy meal plan.

Reach out to others

Talking with others who are facing similar situations may help you or someone you know stay motivated. It can also provide a place to turn to if you have questions about the condition or treatment.

Read about other people’s experiences with eating disorder here »

A photo posted by Amalie Lee(@amalielee) on

Some people find social media outlets as a form of inspiration. It allows them to keep a diary of their experiences so they keep themselves accountable. Journaling online through the right forums can be helpful as well. It lets you reach out to people going through similar challenges and get tips on how to overcome them.

Build your own support through media education

But without the right tools to analyze these media messages, especially content found on social media, people often come to the wrong conclusion. One study found that some women who posted “fitspiration” photos on Instagram  — these are images of physically fit bodies with messages of perseverance and persistence — scored higher for:

  • thinness
  • bulimia
  • compulsive exercise
  • risk of clinical eating disorder

It’s important for anyone who has an eating disorder to education themselves about the pervasive roles that the media and its advertisers play in reinforcing perfect body images. To understand this phenomenon is to become media literate. This is when you learn how to think critically about the images you see and understand that they’re not necessarily realistic.

One review found that information-based, cognitive behavioral, and psycho-educational therapies were least effective for improving body image and eating problems in college students.

But the same review suggested that media literacy can counter those findings. It added that practices to reduce the risk for eating disorders including health education activities are crucial to helping college students develop body-positive images and healthy eating habits.

You can visit Media Smarts for a series of key questions that’ll help you look at media with a critical eye.

The takeaway

No alternative therapies are as effective as traditional treatments, when it comes to eating disorders. But some people do find alternative therapies helpful.

Alternative treatments such as body awareness therapy can improve a person’s overall sense of self-esteem. Yoga and massage can also help reduce levels of stress, anxiety, and depression.

You may also want to share your treatment plan with your family and friends. A network of people who believe in you can make a huge difference in recovery process.

Speak to your doctor before you start a new therapy. They can help you assess the potential benefits and manage side effects. 

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