Entering recovery for an eating disorder is a monumental step in your journey to healing. Among  discussions about diagnosis, symptoms, and treatment options, another question that comes up and that I wondered myself before entering treatment is: What is the recovery rate for eating disorders?

This is a complex question with – what I learned is – a complex, no “one-size-fits-all” answer. And in fact, it actually may be most helpful to first consider the complexity of recovery and the meaning of “recovered” when it comes to eating disorders before we dive into recovery rates for them.

The Complexity of Eating Disorder Recovery

While recovery for some illnesses is clearly and concretely defined and therefore easier to measure, this is not always the case for eating disorders. Recovery can mean different things to different people, and “full recovery” isn’t always quantifiable and also isn’t necessarily the goal for everyone in recovery. The nature of each person’s recovery journey depends on a variety of personal, societal, and systemic factors including (but certainly not limited to) the eating disorder you are struggling with, your own personal desire to engage in treatment, level of access to treatment options, the treatments and support you end up receiving. Recovery journeys, while highly individualized, generally include a combination of nutritional, physical, psychological, functional and social elements.

What is Considered “Full Recovery” from an Eating Disorder?

“Full recovery” is loosely defined as full freedom from eating disorder thoughts, feelings, and behaviors along with improved physical and psychological wellbeing. Full recovery may be the ultimate goal for many, but it isn’t the only measure of success for those who are healing. For many, the journey towards recovery involves ups and downs, setbacks and breakthroughs, moments of doubt and moments of triumph. Some may find that managing their eating disorder becomes a part of their lifelong journey, where harm reduction and symptom management is the goal.

Recovery is a journey toward reclaiming your life, rediscovering your identity beyond the constraints of the eating disorder, and being able to experience joy and fulfillment in everyday moments in a way that you may not have been able to before recovery. The emphasis shouldn’t solely be on achieving a predetermined endpoint but rather on helping you move closer toward reclaiming parts of your life that have been taken over by your eating disorder.

It’s also crucial to recognize that this recovery journey may look vastly different for two people who suffer from the same eating disorder. For some, it may involve weight restoration, moving toward body neutrality, and/or making peace with food. For others, it may involve developing different coping mechanisms and building supportive relationships. And for many, it may involve trauma work as part of the recovery process. Each person’s eating disorder struggle is unique, so it only makes sense that the each person’s recovery journey will be equally as unique and individualized.

What does the research say about eating disorder recovery rates?

Woman on laptop in the dark with coffee, book, and glasses beside her. 19107. Woman searching eating disorder recovery rate.

While statistics can provide some insight into recovery rates, they often fail to capture the intricacies and personal experiences that make up those numbers. With this in mind, the Journal of Eating Disorders reports that 40-60% of people who enter treatment for an eating disorder will make what is classified as a “full recovery.” Various other studies report rates within this range, as well. 

One study done by the National Institute of Health suggests that the full recovery rate for those who had bulimia was up to 74%, and the “full recovery” rate for those in the study who suffered from anorexia was around 30%. This same study suggests that around 90% of those with bulimia experienced a partial-recovery and upwards of 80% of those who had anorexia made a partial recovery. They define partial recovery as “some improvement, but still symptomatic in at least one area: physical health, eating disorder thoughts and behaviors, social functioning or mood.” This study obviously does not cover the scope of all eating disorders that people suffer from, so this is not at all a complete picture of recovery rates, but it does shed light on an important truth: many who have eating disorders and enter treatment experience at least some level of improvement in their symptoms.

Beyond Recovery Rates: Rethinking Recovery Goals

Speaking from my own experience, if “full recovery” is the only goal for those who have an eating disorder, it can make partial recovery, symptom management, or harm reduction feel like failure to those who have an eating disorder. It can also feel like such a lofty and elusive goal that it makes the whole recovery process feel even more intimidating and daunting than it already does. If recovery feels out of reach, it can be a deterrent for some to even attempt it. 

Ultimately, the recovery rate for eating disorders may vary and be challenging to quantify, so it’s important to recognize and remember that recovery is possible and achievable in many forms. Whether it’s achieving “full recovery” or learning to manage symptoms, every step towards healing is commendable. And most importantly, recovery is a journey, often one that is nonlinear, sometimes messy, and maybe full of one step forward and a couple steps back experiences and moments. Knowing and embracing this has helped me feel less pressure in my own personal recovery journey, and has helped me remember that one does not have to be “fully recovered” to have success in eating disorder recovery, and an ongoing recovery process can still lead to a beautiful and fulfilling life.

By: Erika Muller, Assistant for Wildflower Therapy LLC

All images via Unsplash

How Can Wildflower Therapy in Philadelphia, PA Help You?

If you’re looking for someone to come alongside you to help you unpack and approach the the complex set of experiences and emotions that come with having and healing from an eating disorder, our therapists in Pennsylvania are honored to help!  In fact, you can get to know a little bit more about them here and book a free consultation here.

Other Mental Health Services Provided by Wildflower Therapy, Philadelphia, PA

Life is a unique and sometimes messy journey for each of us; we all have our own individual battles to fight. Our therapists know there is no one-size-fits-all approach to any of life’s challenges and because of that, we offer many unique perspectives and approaches to help meet you where you are with our Philadelphia, PA Therapy services.

We offer services for eating disorder therapy, services for anxiety, and depression, and have practitioners who specialize in perinatal mental health maternal mental healththerapy for college students and athletes. As well as LGBTQIA+ Affirming Therapy. As you can see, we have something to offer just about anyone in our Philadelphia, PA office. Reaching out is often the most difficult step you can take to improve your mental health. We look forward to partnering with you on this journey!