Types of Eating Disorder Treatment Professionals: How to Find the Right One for You

When looking for eating disorder treatment, it may be hard to navigate the different types of healthcare professionals and treatment options that are available. Your specific needs will help dictate which type of eating disorder professional is right for you.

Research has shown that the best way to treat an eating disorder is with a comprehensive and cohesive team of healthcare professionals and eating disorder specialists. Eating disorders often involve varying co-existing symptoms or disorders, such as nutrient imbalances, medical difficulties, and psychological issues, such as depression and anxiety. As such, it is crucial to have a team of professionals that can adequately address each of these concerns. It is helpful to start with a primary care physician or therapist who specializes in eating disorders to receive referrals and start building your treatment team.

Below you’ll find a list of the different types of practitioners, as well as information on their qualifications, education, and background. This may help guide you in the right direction when cultivating a plan for eating disorder treatment and creating a treatment team that is right for you.

Psychologists: A psychologist requires a doctorate degree, in which an individual is awarded either a Ph.D. or a Psy.D. degree. Psychology doctoral programs typically require additional supervision before an individual is able to see patients on his or her own. A great place to start your treatment team is with a psychologist who specializes in eating disorders. Psychologists will facilitate therapy sessions, during which different methods of psychotherapy will be utilized to reshape a patient’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, with an emphasis on long-term, sustained eating disorder recovery. Psychologists are also able to treat co-occurring mental health disorders, such as anxiety, depression, trauma, and substance use disorders. Psychologists are well equipped to develop treatment plans that focus on the mental and emotional concerns associated with eating disorders. This article gives information on evaluating and choosing a therapist.

Physician (MD): Physicians require extensive training, including a bachelor’s degree, four years of medical school, and a medical residency. Physicians who specialize in eating disorders are equipped to oversee and treat the medical complications associated with eating disorders, such as electrolyte imbalances or heart conditions. Additionally, physicians are able to prescribe medications. It is important to note, however, that the while MDs do require extensive medical training, they often don’t receive in-depth training in eating disorders. As such, it is important to use a physician as a jumping off point for a referral to the appropriate provider. Here is more on your doctor’s role in eating disorders treatment.

Psychiatrists: Psychiatrists require similar education to physicians, including a bachelor’s degree, four years of medical school, and a residency. Like physicians, psychiatrists are able to prescribe medications, and are important members of the eating disorder treatment team, especially for patients with co-occurring mental health issues, such as anxiety or depression. Medications alone cannot cure an eating disorder, but they may be an effective aspect of treatment in combination with talk therapy.

LPC/LMHC vs. LCSW: On the surface, Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSW), Licensed Professional Counselors (LPC), and Licensed Mental Health Counselors (LMHC) seem similar; however, there are some notable differences. LPCs and LMHCs typically require a master’s degree in counseling, as well as post-graduate supervised experience. The LPC and LMHC provide individually-based mental health counseling. They are also equipped to provide couples or family therapy. A LCSW requires a master’s degree in social work and refers to individuals who provide social work-based mental therapy. A LCSW works with individuals to assess both internal and external factors that impact an eating disorder. External factors may include economic or societal influences on an individual. As such, a LCSW can help provide a holistic approach to mental health therapy. All three titles (LPC, LMHC, and LCSW) are protected and require state licensure.

RDN/RD: A registered dietitian or registered dietitian nutritionist (these titles are interchangeable) is a nutrition provider who requires extensive schooling, training, and licensure. RDs are required to complete a bachelor’s degree in nutrition, followed by a dietetic internship, and a national licensure exam. RDs have an educational background in food science and nutrition education and can help eating disorder patients translate scientific information into practical advice surrounding food and eating. Specifically for eating disorder patients, RDs can prescribe dietary treatments, teach people how to eat and buy appropriate foods, and provide medical nutrition therapy. RDs can help people with eating disorders create and maintain a balanced meal plan. Goals of nutrition education include: working toward a healthy weight, understanding how nutrition impacts your body, practicing meal planning, establishing regular eating patterns, and correcting health problems that are a result of malnutrition or eating disorder behaviors. RDs are also equipped to work with eating disorder patients to establish mindful and intuitive eating behaviors, that patients will be able to implement for long-term, sustainable recovery.

CEDRD, CEDS: The International Association of Eating Disorders Professionals (iaedp), has established a process for healthcare professionals to become certified in the field of eating disorders. In order to receive this certification, healthcare professionals must demonstrate clinical expertise and pass an exam. Iaedp offers several certifications, including Certified Eating Disorders Specialist (CEDS) for therapists and physicians; Certified Eating Disorders Registered Dietitian (CEDRD) for registered dietitians; Certified Eating Disorders Creative Arts Therapist (CEDCAT) for art, music, recreation, and dance/movement therapists; and Certified Eating Disorders Registered Nurse (CEDRN) for registered nurses. Healthcare providers with iaedp certifications are great resources for eating disorder patients, as they have gone through extensive training in the field of eating disorders and are required to stay abreast of current research in the field of eating disorders via ongoing continuing education.

Treatment Centers: A treatment center may be beneficial for the treatment of your eating disorder. A treatment center might be a good option for holistic, hands-on care. There are several different types of treatment centers that provide different levels of care. Intensive outpatient programs (IOP) offer treatment in the outpatient setting, while a patient is also able to participate in their typical daily activities (work, school, etc.). Day treatment programs generally require attendance for multiple hours per day, several days a week. This type of treatment can include medical care, group, individual, or family therapy; structured eating sessions; and nutrition education. Additionally, there are residential treatment programs for eating disorders. In residential treatment, you will live at an eating disorder treatment facility and receive holistic care from physicians, psychologists, RDs, among other healthcare providers. Different treatment centers employ different methodology when it comes to eating disorder treatment, so it is important to do your research and get a sense of what each center provides and, in turn, understand what type of treatment center may be right for you. In some cases, medical hospitalization will be necessary for eating disorder patients. If eating disorder patients experience severe medical complications as a result of their illness, they may require medical stabilization before they are able to enter an eating disorder treatment program. Here is more on choosing the right treatment center, and our list of treatment centers that specialize in eating disorders.

You will likely be more successful in eating disorder recovery if you take an active role in your treatment plan and feel comfortable with and confident in your treatment team. Now that you know what to look for in terms of licensing when looking for an eating disorder specialist, it may be helpful to ask yourself some of these questions: What is this practitioner’s experience with eating disorders? Is this practitioner a member of a prominent eating disorder organization, such as the Academy of Eating Disorders or the International Association of Eating Disorders Professionals? Does this practitioner work with a team of other healthcare professionals? It is ideal to find a team that can work well together, but most importantly, it is ideal to find a team of skilled healthcare practitioners with whom you are comfortable in order to facilitate healing.


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Additional Reading:

Treating Eating Disorders
Navigating Eating Disorder Treatment
Determining Which Psychological Treatment is Best for an Individual
Learning to Eat Normally When Recovering From An Eating Disorder
Approaching Someone With An Eating Disorder
Anosognosia (Denial) in Patients with Eating Disorders
Importance Of Getting Help And Being Honest In Medical And Therapy Appointments
Postpartum Depression and Eating Disorders


Written by Lauren Koffler, a registered dietitian/nutritionist, 2019.