Treatment of Eating Disorders in Adults Versus Adolescents: Similarities and Differences

Clin Ther. 2021 Jan;43(1):70-84. doi: 10.1016/j.clinthera.2020.10.015. Epub 2020 Nov 20.


Findings: Although several individual psychotherapies for adults with eating disorders are empirically supported, with family-based treatment (FBT) being the leading recommended empiric treatment in adolescents, patients with eating disorders are still difficult to treat, and outcomes are often poor. In some countries, the clinical services for adolescents and adults are separate, and it is common for patients to receive treatments that differ in terms of both theory and content when they are switched from adolescent to adult services. Changes in the nature of treatment also often occur when patients move from less intensive types of care to more intensive treatment, and vice versa. These transitions may create a discontinuity in the care pathway and disorient patients and their significant others about the strategies and procedures used for addressing eating problems. However, the observation that younger and older patients essentially share the same eating-disorder psychopathology has led to evidence-based enhanced cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT-E) being adapted for use in adolescents. Originally an evidence-based treatment for adults with eating disorders, CBT-E has yielded promising results in trials in cohorts of adolescent outpatients and inpatients, and is recommended as an alternative to FBT in adolescent patients.

Implications: With a unified treatment such as CBT-E, several issues that plague conventional eating-disorder services could be partially overcome, as patients can move seamlessly from adolescence to adulthood and through different levels of care, with no change in the nature of the treatment itself. Future randomized, controlled trials should compare FBT to CBT-E to better clarify the specific therapeutic needs of subgroups of adolescents and adult patients with eating disorders.

Keywords: adolescents; adults; anorexia nervosa; bulimia nervosa; eating disorders; treatment.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
  • Feeding and Eating Disorders / psychology
  • Feeding and Eating Disorders / therapy*
  • Humans