Healing from an eating disorder is difficult and you don’t have to do it alone. While it’s recommended to work with a licensed therapist, registered dietitian, and a doctor, joining a group can be a great option to add to your recovery. Attending a support group may be a great way to develop connections and insights to create meaningful change. Below we have information about support groups. See our page on group therapy for eating disorders to see if this would be the right option for you.
How do I Get Into a Group?
There are several ways to find groups, but before you start looking, you might want to think about what your goals are.
- Do you want to be involved in a community where peers support each other and maybe even lead a support group?
- Do you want a group led by a therapist that is more structured and where you can connect with a select group of people who come every week?
From the descriptions above, do you think one type of support or focus would be better for you than another?
Cost can be a deciding factor as well. Some support groups are free or based on donations and some have a low fee. You may not find all groups available in your area, but there are online options.
It can be a good idea to ask local therapists if they know of any eating disorder recovery group options in the area. They may be able to suggest one that will be the right fit for you.
Support groups allow people to share their experiences and information with each other which may be helpful in recovery. They can be a helpful addition to other treatments such as individual therapy, nutrition counseling with a dietitian, and working with a doctor. Groups can provide comfort, acceptance, encouragement, and may assist with creating and completing goals. These groups are often run by community members or clinicians and are often provided for free or charge a low fee. They often meet in a non-therapy setting like a church or a conference room. There are usually no attendance expectations as most of them are drop-in groups. Support groups are not a substitute for professional help but may be helpful in the healing process. See below to find one in your area.
Directories for Eating Disorder Support Groups
The Alliance for Eating Disorders Awareness provides free professional-led support groups throughout the US. Check for locations near you.
The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) has a listing of free and low-cost support groups on their site.
Psychology Today is a helpful directory where you can locate groups in your area.
You can also google “eating disorder groups near me,” to see other options.
The 12-Step Model
Overeaters Anonymous (OA)
You may have heard of 12-Step groups before, like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), which helps people struggling with alcoholism, there are similar 12-Step groups for eating disorders. OA looks at eating disorders as addictive in nature and encourages abstinence from eating disorder behaviors. OA believes that this addiction extends to certain food substances. While anyone with an eating disorder is welcome at these meetings, most individuals who go to OA struggle with abstinence from binge or compulsive eating issues.
OA believes that recovery requires attention to three areas of a person – physical, spiritual and emotional. The “12-steps” is a model to help an individual move forward in recovery while addressing these areas. People often work with a sponsor (or mentor) from the 12-step program who has been working the program for a longer period of time that can assist with resisting the pull to engage in target behaviors. Meetings are offered throughout the week either in person, by phone or by computer. Sometimes when people cannot find an OA meeting, they will attend a different type of 12 step meeting, like AA, because even if the behaviors differ, the steps are the same and you can replace the target word regardless of the problem with which you are struggling. The availability and affordability (free) of meetings makes this an easier type of group to find.
There are some potential issues with going to OA while recovering from an eating disorder. As mentioned above, OA encourages abstinence and often encourages restricting certain types of food from your diet. While many are working to abstain from behaviors like bingeing or purging, it is not recommended to abstain from particular foods or food groups for non-medical reasons as this tends to create more fixation on food, weight, and body, and can increase the severity of the eating disorder. OA also appears to promote diet culture, which is a system of beliefs that we need to be smaller, thinner, more “in control”, equates weight to health and morality, and the belief that there are good and bad foods. Find a meeting.
Eating Disorders Anonymous may be a similar but helpful alternative to OA, find a meeting.
Anorexics and Bulimics Anonymous (ABA)
ABA is another 12-step program that welcomes individuals struggling with all types of eating disorders. However, with ABA there isn’t any recommended abstinence from particular types of food, making this group potentially more helpful for individuals wanting to find recovery from their eating disorder. According to their website, the only requirement for joining is a desire to “stop unhealthy eating practices.” As with OA, this group is free, although they do ask for contributions to help offset costs for having the meeting. However, the first step (of the 12 Steps) differs as OA speaks to individuals being “powerless over food” and ABA states that individuals are “powerless over insane eating patterns.” Prior to attending these meetings, ABA recommends that individuals are connected with professionals who treat eating disorders, as 12-step meetings are not a substitute for obtaining professional help.
While 12-step meetings offer free and available support, the addiction model doesn’t fully address the multidimensional and multi-causal nature of eating disorders. Still, some report benefits from attending ABA, especially as an adjunct to treatment. Find meetings here.
Starting Your Own Eating Disorder Support Group
You may not find what you’re looking for in your area or feel inspired to create a new group. If you would like to start a support group, start to think about your mission statement. What do you think is missing in your community? Do you want to create a group for those with eating disorders, their loved ones, or specifically their parents? Consider if there is anyone you can reach out to for help. Contacting those who have started their own group can be helpful as they may be able to share information they have learned along the way. You could partner with an organization in the community that will refer people to the group and you may be able to gather handouts and other material to group members.
Questions to Consider
- Who are your ideal group members?
- When would you have a group?
- How long and how often?
- Where would you hold it? In-person or online?
- Will there be a cost?
- Will it be open (anyone is welcome) or closed (a fixed group of people only)?
- Will there be an agenda or is open discussion welcome?
- What rules are needed to create safety: confidentiality, language, structure
- How will you advertise?
It takes a lot of time, courage, and effort to create a support group but it can be an incredible resource for recovery in your community. As social beings, it can be healing to share and connect with each other, we don’t have to go through this alone.
Treating Eating Disorders
Myths About Eating Disorders
Denial in Patients with Eating Disorders
Eating Disorders Symptoms
Getting Involved with Eating Disorder Advocacy
Weight Stigma and Eating Disorders
Eating Disorders in the LGBTQ+ Community
(n.d.). Retrieved September 9, 2019, from ABA.
NEDA – Free & Low Cost Support. (2018, October 9). Retrieved November 12, 2019.
Newcomers to OA. (n.d.). Retrieved October 22, 2019.
Written – 2020