Recovery from an Eating Disorder: Is it Possible?

BY: Erica Goodman

DATE: July 27, 2015

Many types and levels of care for eating disorder treatment exist, including outpatient therapy, acute inpatient treatment, long-term residential programs and more. The ultimate goal of all treatments is the same, namely recovery. But fundamental questions about the definition of recovery remain. What does full recovery from an eating disorder looks like? Is full recovery even possible?

To date, researchers have been unable to agree on a single definition of recovery from an eating disorder. Most definitions include adequate weight gain (if applicable, for instance in anorexia nervosa) and the absence of eating disorder behaviors (such as restricting, binge eating, purging etc.). But what about the thinking patterns associated with eating disorders and body image and body satisfaction? For example, someone with anorexia may have gained weight and curtailed exercise and someone with binge-eating disorder may have stopped binge eating, but both still have negative thoughts about food and their bodies. These persistent negative thoughts have been shown to predict relapse.[1]

Eating disorders have high relapse rates; 30-56% for anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa.[2] Therefore, it is important to have a clear and universal definition of recovery so that treatment can better address the complex needs of the patient and improve recovery rates.

Full recovery from an eating disorder is possible and should include psychological recovery. People who have suffered from eating disorders who make substantial gains including weight gain (in anorexia), cessation of eating disorder behaviors, and report little-to-no disordered eating thoughts become indistinguishable from people who have never had an eating disorder in terms of distressing food/weight thoughts and rates of other mental illnesses (e.g., depression).[3]

An intriguing study asked patients how they knew when they were recovered. One individual reported, “The eating disorder feels far away, like a distant dream, very separate from my current life.”

The path to recovery is not always simple, and it is rarely linear, but every patient deserves the opportunity to have their eating disorder become a distant dream.

For more information about eating disorder treatment in your area, please visit:

[1] Keel, P. K., Dorer, D. J., Franko, D. L., Jackson, S. C., & Herzog, D. B. (2005). Postremission predictors of relapse in women with eating disorders. American Journal of Psychiatry, 162, 2263–2268.


[3] Bardone-Cone, A.M., Harney, M.B., Maldonado, C.R., Lawson, M.A., Robinson, D.P., Smith, R., & Tosh, A. (2010). Defining recovery from an eating disorder: Conceptualization, validation, and examination of psychosocial functioning and psychiatric comorbidity. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 48, 194-202. doi:10.1016/j.brat.2009.11.001