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Holistic Eating Disorder Treatment

When holistic eating disorder treatment is discussed, integrative medicine must be considered at the same time.  Integrative medicine is healing-oriented medicine that takes account of the whole person (body, mind, spirit), including all aspects of lifestyle.  It makes use of all therapies, both conventional and alternative.

In the past ten years, integrative medicine centers have opened across the country.  There are currently 44 academic medical centers that are members of the Consortium of Academic Health Centers for Integrative Medicine.  Among these medical centers are Harvard, Columbia, Georgetown, University of Pennsylvania, University of Arizona, Duke, and Stanford.

The percentage of US hospitals that offer complementary and holistic therapies has grown to include more than 20% on 2004, with more than 24% of hospitals saying that they’ll offer these therapies in the near future.

Holistic Eating Disorder Treatment - Integrative Medicine

Integrative medicine and holistic eating disorder treatment are partners in treating the whole person, knowing that one part of a person cannot become either ill or well without all of the other parts being affected.  Holistic eating disorder treatment depends on a partnership between the patient, therapist, and the doctor, where the goal is to treat the mind, body, and spirit, all at the same time.  While some of the therapies used might be considered unconventional, a guiding principle within holistic and integrative medicine is to use therapies that have some high-quality evidence to support them, therapies that would be used in holistic eating disorder treatment as well.

Foundations of Holistic Eating Disorder Treatment

Holistic eating disorder treatment is one of the most effective types of eating disorder treatment in the United States.  For years, the “gold-standard” in eating disorder treatment has been cognitive behavioral therapy and nutritional intervention.  Outcome studies have shown that good recovery as a result of CBT has been limited.

Holistic eating disorder treatment must include some basic foundations.  First of all, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the foremost therapeutic interventions and has proved to be efficacious with many patients.  CBT is the therapy that teaches people how to treat the mind, overcoming negative thinking, and how to build daily life skills.  Many patients have been so absorbed by the eating disorder, with what they’re going to eat, when they’re going to eat it, and what they’re going to do with it after they’ve eaten it that they’ve literally forgotten everything else.

A Multidisciplinary Approach

In a holistic eating disorder treatment center, a multidisciplinary treatment team consists of practitioners from traditional psychiatry, psychotherapy, and medicine who work closely with complementary medicine practitioners. Every member of the staff needs to be an experienced, caring professional who is certified and/or licensed in his or her area of practice and is knowledgeable in the field of eating disorders.

We often say that there's no such thing as a client with JUST an eating disorder. Nearly all eating disorder clients present with a host of issues that may include anorexia, bulimia and compulsive eating, but also attention deficit disorder, anxiety, depression, trauma and sleep disorders.

Holistic Eating Disorder Treatment Modalities and Methodologies

In holistic eating disorder treatment, many types of experiential therapies are used.  Clients who have had various traumatic events in their lives are treated through the use of experiential therapies. These therapies include Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), cognitive-behavioral interventions, Gestalt Therapy, Traumatic Incident Reduction (TIR), Thought Field Therapy (TFT) and Neural-Linguistic Programming (NLP). Trauma, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and sexual abuse issues are addressed in a professional, respectful, and gentle manner.

Clients in holistic eating disorder treatment are treated as individuals and their treatment plans will reflect their individual needs.  Each client will fully participate in those modalities that she and the staff feel will be most beneficial for her.


In holistic eating disorder treatment client’s treatment plans will include acupuncture.  Acupuncture restores health by readjusting and balancing energy or chi.  In holistic eating disorder treatment, acupuncture is particularly helpful for patients with digesting problems and food allergies, and many times for those with cravings.


Bodywork is another kind of alternative therapy that has become an essential part of any holistic treatment program.  “The body remembers what the mind wants to forget,” is an underlying principle of bodywork.  Whether it’s massage therapy, polarity therapy, cranial-sacral, or reiki, bodywork helps integrate the mind, body and spirit.

Expressive Arts Therapy

Expressive arts therapy is used extensively in a holistic eating disorder treatment program.  It is used to uncover and heal issues that are brought to awareness through the subconscious mind.  Whether a client is “building her eating disorder” or creating a series of daily mandalas, she has the opportunity to discover and create her own unique identity.

Naturopathic Medicine

Naturopathic medicine is a natural partner in holistic eating disorder treatment.  It is based on the premise that disease is a natural phenomenon best treated with natural resources and that health is thought of as being a balance in all aspects of being: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual.  The best description of naturopathic medicine as opposed to allopathic medicine is that allopathic or traditional medicine focuses on illness whereas naturopathic medicine focuses on wellness. 

Functional Medicine

Functional medicine is a kind of medicine that enables us to pinpoint each client’s exact nutritional deficiencies and then be able to design an individual treatment plan based on that client’s needs.  Functional medicine in holistic eating disorder treatment can pinpoint abnormalities and contributing factors to health problems, often exposing the real causes of chronic illness and degenerative disease.  It identifies imbalances that result from a variety of factors including diet, exercises, and the way the body processes trauma.

Clients may be offered diagnostic tests known as the ION Profile.  ION includes a detailed analysis of more than 100 components in blood and urine for essential fatty acids, amino acids, B vitamins and antioxidants as well as toxic metals.  When the information is analyzed, a customized nutritional and therapeutic plan is created to help the client achieve her optimal health.


Neurofeedback is another one of the most effective alternative treatment methodoligies available for the treatment of eating disorders. Very simply put, neurofeedback (or eeg biofeedback) is the science of reconditioning and retraining brain wave patterns.  EEG biofeedback or "neurofeedback" directly reveals brain wave activity. Although still considered "new," this learning technique has been widely used since the 1960s for stress reduction and the treatment of epilepsy. Research is currently being done on the efficacy of neurofeedback’s use as an alternative to psychotropic medications.

Neurofeedback is used in holistic eating disorder treatment to help clients focus better, integrate trauma memories and learn to change brain wave patterns associated with anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. Each client should receive neurofeedback several times per week to enhance her ability to actualize brain wave change during her treatment stay.

Eating disorders don't exist in a vacuum. They often occur in conjunction with other conditions such OCD, anxiety, depression and sleep disorders. These collateral disorders are very easily and successfully treated with EEG.


Yoga is another type of body therapy.  It actually is a practical spiritual science that brings positive results and encourages a balanced, all-around development of human potential.  The poses help people gain health and emotional well-being.  Yoga in a holistic eating disorders treatment program prepares the body for a spiritual path through physical and breathing exercises.

Energy Psychology - Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT)

Energy Psychology has been around for 30 years and has been practiced in many forms.  EFT or Emotional Freedom Techniques is one of the more effective of the many techniques in existence.  EFT is based on the belief that illness is caused by disturbances in the body energy field, and that trauma can be relieved and the body’s natural energy restored by tapping meridian points on the upper body and hands.  EFT sounds very strange but acupuncture and EMDR were thought to be weird when they first were practiced.  More than 85% of the people who try EFT report positive results.  It is great for traumas, phobias, limiting beliefs, and even fear of eating.

Healthy Eating and Whole Foods

Whole foods are an absolutely essential part of any holistic eating disorder treatment program.  This means whole, unadulterated and unprocessed foods, foods as they appear in nature when we eat them and that are minimally processed and free of artificial flavors, colors and preservatives.  When a person is recovering from an eating disorder she starts out by being malnourished.  Eating high quality, nutrient and fiber rich foods makes sure that she is getting the nutrition she needs.  Food serves as a kind of medicine in the initial phase of recovery.

Healthy eating leads to healthy exercise.  Healthy exercise is all about balance.  An effective, holistic exercise program includes yoga, dance/movement therapy, kickboxing, weights, gentle cardio and walks.  It’s important for patients to realize that all the things that are wonderful and beneficial about exercise turn and become negative when the person becomes nutritionally compromised.

Adventure Based Therapy / Wilderness Therapy (ABT)

Lastly, adventure based therapy or wilderness therapy (ABT) is a well-known way of treating a wide variety of psychological disorders such as depression and anxiety, substance abuse, and PTSD.  Research has shown the ABT has proven to be effective in holistic eating disorder treatment. The goal of adventure-based therapy is to create unusual, physically and emotionally challenging circumstances that stimulate problem-solving and coping strategies. By requiring clients to work together to solve common problems, ABT also promotes the development of social skills and self-confidence. Women with eating disorders tend to be overly analytical, self-critical and completely dissociated from their bodies. ABT puts clients in a situation that requires risk-taking and problem-solving. And that's really what recovery is all about — getting the client out of her comfort zone.


Holistic eating disorder treatment covers quite a wide range of options for treatment.  One eating disorder expert said it like this, “We’re going to knock on a lot of little doors with and for a patient.  Some of those doors will open with CBT, others with acupuncture, body work, or neurofeedback.  But we at least have such a wide variety of little doors that we’ll find whatever it is that will be the way that will take a particular, individual person towards healing, health, and wellness.”

About the Author

Jeanne Rust, PhD is the Founder and CEO of Mirasol, a holistic, integrative, eating disorders treatment center located in Tucson, AZ. She was the first in the country to use holistic and complementary interventions for eating disorder treatment. She has been written up in various newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune, USA Today, the San Francisco Chronicle among them, as well as other print publications such as Time magazine in the United States and Flair magazine in Canada. You can access Mirasol's listing in our treatment directory by clicking here: Mirasol Eating Disorder Treatment Center

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