Kids who Diet: There’s an App for That, But Shouldn’t Be

WW International, the company formerly known as Weight Watchers, recently launched an app called Kurbo which is designed to help children ages 8-18 to diet and lose weight. The app is marketed as a “health coaching” tool, but a closer look at the company’s website reveals testimonials of children losing weight and dropping BMI points, complete with “before” and “after” photos. In recent years, the words “diet” and “dieting” have been replaced with words like “wellness” and “healthy eating” in popular nomenclature. But more often than not, when people refer to “eating healthy,” they are talking about restricting calories, reducing carbohydrates, and decreasing portion sizes. In other words, dieting in pursuit of weight loss. The brilliant marketing team at Weight Watchers, aware of this cultural shift in nomenclature, re-branded themselves as WW (Wellness that Works) to stay in vogue with their client base: people living in larger bodies.

But make no mistake: Kurbo is a diet app designed to help children lose weight. Although the app is touted as being based on years of scientific research, the very existence of this app defies the best available scientific evidence, which strongly suggests that CHILDREN AND ADOLESCENTS SHOULD NOT DIET.

Why? Let me count the reasons.

  1. Bodies are meant to be diverse in size and shape. The very notion that a child or adolescent should lose weight in order to have an acceptable body flies in the face of genetics and natural size diversity.
  2. Weight loss disrupts crucial physiological processes in the growing bodies of children and adolescents. Puberty requires significant weight gain to ensure proper development of the brain, bones, reproductive organs, and other vital body systems. Losing weight during adolescence can halt puberty, stunt vertical growth, and alter hormone levels.
  3. Dieting is not effective at producing long-term weight loss, but it reliably predicts weight gain and depression. More often than not, dieting leads to weight cycling: losing weight in the short-term but regaining weight and ending up at the same weight, or a higher weight, in the longer-term. Our bodies have evolved to protect us against famine by slowing down metabolic processes when food is scarce (such as, when we are dieting and losing weight) and ramping up hunger signals and cravings, which often leads to overindulgence or binge eating. Weight cycling is associated with negative health outcomes, including increased risk of depression. Individuals who diet frequently experience cycles of shame, guilt, and feelings of failure each time they regain lost weight.
  4. The normalization and glorification of diet culture is harmful and toxic to all children. When a person in a position of authority (e.g., doctor, parent, teacher, coach) tells a child or adolescent to lose weight, or places that child or adolescent on a diet, the message being sent (either subtly or overtly) is: “Your body is not acceptable as it is, and you must work very hard change your body in order to be attractive, healthy, happy, or socially accepted.” This message is damaging to a young person’s self-esteem, confidence, and body image.
  5. Diet culture disproportionately targets and stigmatizes individuals in larger bodies, thus perpetuating weight stigma.
  6. Although dieting itself does not cause eating disorders, dieting (or food restriction of any kind) can trigger the onset of an eating disorder in a child who is genetically vulnerable. Further, diet culture creates a toxic environment for individuals who are recovering from eating disorders. Eating disorders are dangerous, debilitating, difficult to treat illnesses that have the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder.

Thankfully, there are many other individuals and organizations who share my sentiments on this matter and are publicly condemning this app.

  1. Healthcare Providers Against Kurbo. A group of physicians, psychologists, therapists, and dietitians who specialize in treating eating disorders has formed a petition protesting the Kurbo app. You can read and sign the petition here.
  2. Registered Dietitian Christy Harrison published an article in the New York Times explaining why the Kurbo app is harmful to children.
  3. FEAST (Families Empowered and Supporting Treatment for Eating Disorders) posted a position statement condemning this app.
  4. NEDA (National Eating Disorders Association) published a position statement expressing grave concerns about the app.

So, you might ask, if dieting is not the answer, then what should we do about childhood obesity? The answer, based on the best available scientific research, is that obesity per se is not the problem, and thus the pursuit of weight loss per se is not the solution. Instead, adults who are charged with the task of caring for our youth (e.g., parents, teachers, coaches, and doctors) should encourage health-promoting behaviors in children across the weight spectrum. Children of all weights will benefit from eating balanced family meals containing a wide variety of foods from all food groups. Children of all weights benefit from adequate sleep, daily physical activity, and limited screen time. Children of all weights should be taught body acceptance and should be educated about size diversity. This is true health promotion. In some cases, these health-promoting behaviors will result in weight loss for higher-weight children, and in some cases, they will not. But regardless of what happens to the child’s weight, these health-promoting behaviors bring about genuine improvements in the child’s physical and mental well-being. And – this is important – NO HARM IS DONE.

Sorry, WW Kurbo app – you’ve got it all wrong.

Empowering Parents to Support Adolescent Eating Disorder Recovery

I am honored to be spotlighted by LEAD, inc as a mental health advocate.  LEAD is a nonprofit mental health advocacy organization founded in 2012 by a group of high school students.   LEAD offers innovative, engaging, evidence-based programs which improve early intervention for mental illness.

As a clinical psychologist treating children, adolescents, and young adults, I am a strong proponent of early, aggressive, evidence-based interventions for young people who are struggling with mental illnesses.  My personal and professional values align closely with those of LEAD, so I was thrilled when LEAD asked me to publish a VIP guest post for their blog!  My post went live yesterday.  This piece describes a topic about which I am passionate: Empowering Parents to Support Adolescent Eating Disorder Recovery. 

Updated Summary of Treatment Outcomes

Since opening my private practice in 2009, I have been privileged to work with over 300 individuals and families, providing consultation, evaluations, and treatment for a variety of mental health conditions.  I believe in being transparent and straightforward about the services I provide and why I provide them.  Individuals who are seeking mental health services for themselves or for their children have a right to know what treatment with a particular provider will actually be like, how long it will last, what outcomes they can expect, and what factors contribute to a more or less favorable outcome.

To this end, I collect detailed information on my patients’ treatment outcomes and publish the results on my blog.  Here is an updated summary of treatment outcomes for the disorders I most commonly treat.  For more detailed information on the types of treatment provided and treatment outcomes in my practice for each of these disorders, click on the category heading.

Treatment Outcomes for Anorexia Nervosa

  • 50% of patients who entered treatment with me completed a full course of treatment with me. 26% dropped out of treatment prematurely.  22% were referred to other providers who could better meet their needs.  3% moved to other geographic locations during treatment.
  • 97% of patients who completed treatment achieved full remission. The remaining 3% achieved physical remission.
  • The majority of patients who completed treatment did so in a time frame of somewhere between 7 months and 2 years.
  • A full course of treatment required, on average, 27 sessions over the course of 17 months.
  • Patients with co-morbid conditions, such as anxiety disorders or depression, required more sessions, on average, than those without co-morbid conditions.
  • All patients who completed treatment achieved 100% full weight restoration, as indicated by a return to their pre-AN percentile patterns of growth for height and weight.
  • Average time to achieve weight restoration was 3.6 months.
  • Patients who recovered with individual therapy took longer, on average, to achieve weight restoration than those who recovered through Family-Based Treatment (FBT).
  • Patients receiving FBT were almost twice as likely to recover as those receiving individual therapy.
  • Patients receiving individual therapy were almost twice as likely as those receiving FBT to drop out of treatment prematurely.
  • Individuals with restrictive Anorexia Nervosa were twice as likely to achieve full remission as those with binge-purge Anorexia Nervosa.
  • For treatment drop-outs, there was a significant correlation between length of time spent in treatment and progress made. All treatment dropouts who were in treatment with me for at least 2 months had made significant progress towards treatment goals at the time of drop-out.  Patients who dropped out of treatment after one month or less had not made any progress at the time of drop-out.

 

Treatment Outcomes for Bulimia Nervosa

  • Over half of patients with bulimia nervosa (54%) discontinued treatment prematurely after making significant progress towards treatment goals, but prior to achieving full remission.  15% percent of patients were referred to other treatment providers or types of treatment that could better meet their needs, after making little or no progress in treatment with me. 8% of patients moved to other geographic locations and were thus referred to providers near their new homes.  23% of patients completed a full course of treatment with me.
  • Of those who completed a full course of treatment, 100% achieved full remission from their eating disorder.
  • A full course of treatment required, on average, 13 sessions over the course of 5 months.
  • Patients who took Prozac during treatment were more likely to achieve full remission than those who did not take medication.
  • Patients with a prior history of Anorexia Nervosa were less likely to recover from Bulimia than those who did not have a prior history of Anorexia Nervosa.
  • The presence of a comorbid diagnosis was not related to likelihood of achieving full remission from Bulimia.
  • Level of family involvement in treatment was not related to the likelihood of achieving full remission. This finding is in stark contrast to my outcomes for Anorexia Nervosa, in which family involvement was strongly correlated with positive treatment outcome.

Treatment Outcomes for Mood Disorders

  • Only 18% of patients who presented with a primary diagnosis of a mood disorder completed a full course of treatment with me. 50% discontinued treatment prematurely for unknown reasons, 15% moved to other geographic locations, and 18% were referred to other providers who could better meet their needs.
  • Of those who completed a full course of treatment with me, 83% achieved full remission from their mood disorder and the remaining 17% made significant progress towards their treatment goals.
  • Length of time to complete treatment varied dramatically (from 1 month to 3 years) based on individual needs, symptom severity, and progress. On average, a full course of treatment required 23 sessions over the course of 16 months.
  • High levels of family involvement predicted treatment completion and full recovery for adolescent patients but not for adult patients.
  • Patients who were self-referred were more likely to complete treatment and achieve full remission than those who were referred by another professional.
  • Predictors of less favorable treatment outcomes included hospitalization during treatment and taking psychotropic medication during treatment, most likely because these variables are markers for more severe forms of mental illness.
  • The following variables did NOT predict treatment outcome: age at intake, gender, ethnicity, duration of illness, diagnosis (type of mood disorder), presence of co-morbid diagnoses, rate paid for services, type of treatment received with me, or history of hospitalization prior to starting treatment.

Treatment Outcomes for Anxiety Disorders

  • Half of patients who entered treatment for anxiety disorders completed a full course of treatment with me.
  • Of those who completed a full course of treatment, 88% achieved full recovery and the remaining 12% made significant progress towards their treatment goals.
  • Length of time required to complete a full course of treatment varied dramatically from 1 month to 19 months, with a median treatment duration of 3 months.
  • Of those who discontinued treatment prematurely, 63% had made significant progress towards their treatment goals as of their final session with me, and the remaining 37% had made some progress.
  • Predictors of positive treatment outcome included high levels of family involvement in treatment, younger age at intake, shorter duration of illness, being self-referred to my practice, paying full rate for services, and having good attendance at therapy sessions.
  • Predictors of less favorable treatment outcome included presence of a comorbid diagnosis, taking psychotropic medication during treatment with me, and being referred to my practice by a psychiatrist.

General Conclusions

  • Across diagnostic categories, less than half of patients who enter treatment with me complete a full course of treatment with me.
  • I tend to set the bar high for my patients, striving to engage them and help them continue to progress until they reach full remission.
  • Many individuals and families decide to discontinue treatment after making significant progress towards treatment goals, but prior to achieving full remission.
  • I hope that those who discontinue treatment after making significant progress, but prior to achieving full remission, continue to move forward and eventually achieve full remission with the support of their families and/or with other professional supports.  My primary goal in working with families is to empower the parents to help their child.  My goal is to become obsolete for that particular family.   For this reason, when a family reaches a point where the parents are confident that “We’ve got it from here!” and my involvement is no longer necessary, then I have done my job well.    Therefore, dropping out of treatment prematurely, after making significant progress in treatment, may not necessarily be a negative thing.
  • Across all diagnostic categories, patients who complete a full course of treatment with me do very well in recovery. The vast majority achieve full remission from their illness.

 

 

End of Treatment Outcomes for Patients with Bulimia Nervosa (2009 – 2017)

The following is an analysis of all patients who presented for treatment with a primary diagnosis of Bulimia Nervosa between the start of my private practice in 2009 and spring 2017.  Given that this is an analysis of end of treatment outcomes, patients who were currently in treatment with me as of spring 2017 or later were not included in this sample.  Patients and families whom I saw only for evaluations or consultations rather than treatment were not included in this sample.

Description of the Sample

This sample includes 13 individuals, all female, who were between the ages of 14 -27 at the time of their initial evaluation (mean age = 19).   Duration of eating disorder prior to starting treatment with me ranged from 1 month to 11 years, with a mean duration of 3.5 years.  Nearly half of the sample (46%) had a prior history of anorexia nervosa prior to beginning treatment for bulimia with me.   More than ¾ of the sample (77%) had a secondary diagnosis, with the most common being Major Depressive Disorder, followed by ADHD and Anxiety Disorder Not Elsewhere Classified.

Description of the Treatment

Number of sessions attended ranged from 2 to 35, with a mean of 15 sessions.  Duration of treatment ranged from 1 month to 28 months, with a mean duration of 8.8 months.  Over half of the sample (54%) took psychotropic medication during their treatment.

All patients under the age of 18 had moderate or high levels of family involvement in their treatment.  For patients over the age of 18, the degree of family involvement was determined by the patient’s living situation, family circumstances, and preferences.   Among adults, 57% had no family involvement and the remaining 43% had some degree of family involvement, ranging from low (participation in at least one session and/or some phone contact with me outside of sessions) to high (participation in most or all sessions).

Sixty percent of patients under the age of 18 received Family-Based Treatment for Bulimia Nervosa (FBT-BN).  The remaining 40% of patients under 18 received Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) with a moderate to high level of family involvement, meaning that a parent or guardian participated in many or most of the sessions.   Patients over age 18 received CBT, with an integration of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) skills for mindfulness, distress tolerance, emotion regulation, and interpersonal effectiveness.

Approximately 62% of the sample paid full rate for services.  The remaining 38% received a reduced rate based on financial need.

Status at End of Treatment with Me

Twenty-three percent of patients completed a full course of treatment with me.  Of those who completed a full course of treatment, 100% achieved full remission.   A full course of treatment resulting in full remission required an average of 13 sessions over the course of 5 months.

The rate of attrition (treatment dropout) in this sample was very high.   Over half of patients in this sample (54%) discontinued treatment prematurely after making significant progress, but prior to achieving full remission.  Fifteen percent of patients were referred to other treatment providers or types of treatment that could better meet their needs, after making little or no progress in treatment with me. Eight percent of patients moved to other geographic locations and were thus referred to providers near their new homes.

For complete definitions of terms such as “full remission” and “significant progress,” see this blog post from 2013.

Predictors of Positive Treatment Outcome

  • Completion of a full course of treatment was the strongest predictor of positive outcome. 100% of individuals who completed a full course of treatment achieved full remission.
  • Patients who took Prozac during treatment were more likely to achieve full remission than those who did not take medication.
  • Shorter duration of illness prior to beginning treatment with me was associated with greater likelihood of full remission. Patients who achieved full remission had been suffering from an eating disorder for an average of 3.3 years, whereas those who did not achieve full remission had been suffering for an average of 5.3 years.

Other Observations

  • A prior history of Anorexia Nervosa was associated with lower likelihood of achieving full remission from Bulimia Nervosa.
  • Presence of a comorbid diagnosis was not related to likelihood of remission.
  • There was no significant difference in treatment completion or remission rates between patients who paid full rate for services vs. those who paid a reduced rate based on financial need.
  • Degree of family involvement was not related to likelihood of treatment completion or full remission. Individuals were able to achieve full remission with varying levels of family involvement, from no involvement to involvement in every session.  Likewise, individuals dropped out of treatment at similar rates regardless of degree of family involvement.   In contrast, among my patients with Anorexia Nervosa, family involvement was strongly related to likelihood of treatment completion and full remission.

 

End of Treatment Outcomes for Patients with Anorexia Nervosa (2009 – 2017)

Description of the Sample

This analysis includes all patients with a primary diagnosis of Anorexia Nervosa (AN) who participated in an evaluation followed by a minimum of one therapy session with me between the start of my practice in 2009 and spring 2017.  Given that this is an analysis of end of treatment outcomes, patients who are currently in treatment with me were not included in this sample.  Patients and families whom I saw only for evaluations or consultations rather than treatment were not included in this sample.

The sample includes 60 individuals (93% female) who ranged in age from 10 – 37 years old, with a median age of 16 and a modal age of 13.  The majority of patients identified as Caucasian (69%) or Hispanic (29%), with less than 3% identifying with other racial/ethnic groups.

Twenty percent of patients in this sample met criteria for the Binge-Purge Subtype of AN, while the remaining 80% had Restricting Subtype.

Half of patients in this sample had a comorbid diagnosis.  The two most common comorbid diagnosis were  ADHD and Major Depressive Disorder, with 13% of patients meeting criteria for each of these disorders.

Duration of illness before beginning treatment with me ranged from 2 months to 21 years, with older patients, on average, having been sick for a longer duration of time.  The mean duration of illness before entering treatment with me was just under 3 years.

Most patients had a history of unsuccessful outpatient treatment with other providers prior to beginning treatment with me.  In addition, 28% percent of patients had a history of hospitalization for AN prior to beginning treatment with me and 15% had a history of residential treatment.

Ten percent of the sample paid a reduced rate for services due to financial need.

What follows is a summary of treatment outcomes.  For a more detailed description of treatment outcomes for patients with AN, click here.

Description of Treatment Received

  • 95% of child and adolescent patients received Family-Based Treatment (FBT).  The remaining 5% received individual therapy.
  • 40% of patients over age 18 received FBT, either alone or in conjunction with individual therapy. The remaining 60% received individual therapy.
  • Some adolescent FBT patients received individual therapy for a co-morbid condition after their course of FBT was complete.
  • All patients received medical monitoring by their physician during treatment with me.
  • 58% of patients took psychotropic medication at some point during their treatment with me.
  • Average number of sessions attended was 23.
  • Average duration of treatment was 13 months.

Reasons for Treatment Ending

  • 50% of patients completed a full course of treatment with me
  • 26% dropped out of treatment prematurely
  • 22% were referred to other providers
  • 3% moved to other geographic locations during treatment

Treatment Completion

  • 97% of patients who completed treatment achieved full recovery. The remaining 3% achieved physical remission.
  • The majority of patients who completed treatment did so in a time frame of somewhere between 7 months and 2 years.
  • A full course of treatment required, on average, 27 sessions over the course of 17 months.
  • Patients with co-morbid conditions required more sessions, on average, than those without co-morbid conditions.

Weight restoration

  • All patients who completed treatment achieved 100% full weight restoration, as indicated by a return to their pre-AN percentile patterns of growth for height and weight.
  • Average time to achieve weight restoration was 3.6 months.
  • Patients who recovered with individual therapy took longer, on average, to achieve weight restoration than those who recovered through FBT.

Treatment Dropout

  • 26% of patients dropped out of treatment prematurely.
  • Patients receiving individual therapy were almost twice as likely as those receiving FBT to drop out of treatment prematurely.
  • For treatment drop-outs, there was a significant correlation between length of time spent in treatment and progress made.
  • All treatment dropouts who were in treatment with me for at least 2 months had made significant progress at the time of drop-out.
  • Patients who dropped out of treatment after one month or less had not made any progress at the time of drop-out.

Status at End of Treatment with Me

Recovery status was assessed for each patient as of his/her final session with me, regardless of the reason for treatment ending.  The statistics listed below are for the entire sample of patients, including those who completed a full course of treatment, those who dropped out prematurely, and those who were referred to other providers due to a geographic move or a need for a different level of care or type of care.

  • 48% had achieved full recovery
  • 2% achieved physical remission
  • 22% made significant progress
  • 5% made some progress
  • 18% made no progress
  • 3% regressed

Predictors of Positive Treatment Outcome

  • Completion of a full course of treatment: 97% of those who completed treatment achieved full remission.
  • Younger age (Children under 13 had the highest rates of full recovery, followed by adolescents ages 13-17).
  • Patients receiving FBT were almost twice as likely as those receiving individual therapy to achieve full recovery.
  • Males were more likely to achieve full recovery than females.
  • Patients with Restricting Anorexia Nervosa were more than twice as likely as those with Binge-Purge Anorexia Nervosa to achieve full recovery.
  • Patients taking psychotropic medication during treatment were somewhat more likely to achieve full recovery than those who did not take psychotropic medication.
  • Patients who paid full rate for treatment were somewhat more likely to achieve full recovery than those who paid a reduced rate due to financial need.
  • Caucasian (non-Hispanic) patients were somewhat more likely than Hispanic patients to achieve full recovery.

There’s an App for That!

Technology can be used in a variety of ways to enhance mental health and aid in recovery from psychological disorders.   For example, patients can use smart phone apps to help them track moods and symptoms, implement coping strategies, and reach out for help from clinicians and peers when needed.   Most evidence-based, behaviorally-oriented treatments for mental health problems – such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) – require some degree of self-monitoring.  These types of treatments also strongly encourage daily practices to enhance well-being, such as journaling, identifying and challenging negative thoughts, diaphragmatic breathing, or mindfulness meditation.

Most of the teenagers and college students I work with are far beyond the old pen-and-paper logs and worksheets I was trained to use during graduate school.  It seems there’s an app for everything these days, and so many of these apps are relevant to mental health and wellness.  Today’s young people organize their lives on their smart phones anyway, so it is only natural that we would look to the smartphone to help them self-monitor their symptoms, complete their therapy assignments, and keep track of the strategies they use to help themselves.

There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of apps that are useful to people with mental health conditions.  Here are a few of my favorites:

The Recovery Record app helps patients with eating disorders self-monitor their meals and snacks as well as thoughts, feelings, and urges that arise around food.

The Insight Timer app offers a meditation timer, thousands of free guided meditation tracks, groups for like-minded meditators, and the ability to track quantitative statistics such as how many minutes the user spends each day in meditation.

DBT Diary Card and Skills Coach is an electronic version of the Diary Card used in standard DBT practice, which helps the patient track target behaviors and utilize DBT skills from the modules of Mindfulness, Distress Tolerance, Emotion Regulation, and Interpersonal Effectiveness.

The nOCD app helps patients with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder implement their exposure and response prevention treatment while compiling objective, real-time data on their experience.

I am a firm believer that what transpires in the therapist’s office is only a fraction of the treatment package.  Most of the healing process results from consistent changes that patients and their families make on a daily basis at home, at school, and in various social settings.   Thanks to modern technology, individuals who are committed to improving their well-being are now able to hold new tools, literally, in the palms of their hands.

World Eating Disorders Action Day 2017

Today is the second annual World Eating Disorders Action Day, and I am proud to be a part of this international movement.   World Eating Disorders Action Day (#WeDoAct) is a grassroots movement designed for and by people affected by eating disorders, their families, and the healthcare professionals who support them. Uniting activists across the globe, the aim is to expand global awareness of eating disorders as genetically linked, treatable illnesses which affect both males and females across the weight spectrum, as well as people of all ages, ethnic backgrounds, and nationalities.

In honor of today, I would like to bring attention to films, podcasts, and websites which are spreading the messages that I am passionate about – the messages upon which I have built my practice and established my professional identity.  These messages are:

Here are the informative resources that promote these vital messages:

New Plates: A Podcast Series on eating disorders by Laura Collins Lyster-Mensh.  I was thrilled to be interviewed for the first two episodes of New Plates, and my lovely associate, Dr. Tarah Martos, was featured in Episode 10.

Tabitha Farar’s blog and podcast series on adult eating disorder recovery.  I was honored to be a interviewed for her podcasts on How to Find an Eating Disorders Therapist and Eating Disorders and Starting College.

Going Sane: a fascinating and sobering documentary about the failure of the mainstream mental healthcare industry and the importance of utilizing family-centered, evidence-based practice instead.

Parents-to-Parents: A website by and for parents of children with Anorexia Nervosa.

I have seen tremendous growth within this field over the past decade, in large part due to the work of tireless parent advocates and a handful of progressive clinicians.  But still, we’ve got a long way to go.  Join me in spreading the truth about eating disorders and recovery.

Parent-Focused Treatment: An Attractive Alternative to FBT

The results of a randomized clinical trial (RCT) comparing Parent-Focused Treatment (PFT) and Family-Based Treatment (FBT) for adolescent Anorexia Nervosa (AN) were published this month in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.  As a practitioner of FBT, and as a clinician who is always looking for ways to improve patient outcomes, I read this article with great interest.

Family-Based Treatment (FBT), when applied strictly according to the manual, entails a psychologist or other mental health professional meeting with the family as a whole – the adolescent patient, both parents, and siblings – in a single session.  In contrast, Parent-Focused Treatment (PFT) involves the psychologist meeting privately with the parents, while the patient’s weight, vitals, and mental status are monitored by a nurse.

While FBT and PFT therapy sessions are conducted in different formats, the essence of the treatment – which is implemented by parents in the home – is the same.  Both treatments empower parents to work together to increase their adolescent’s food intake, restore him or her to a healthy weight, interrupt eating disordered behaviors, re-establish normal eating patterns, and return him or her to a state of healthy adolescent development.

The results of this study demonstrated that PFT is more efficacious than FBT.  At the end of treatment, patients receiving PFT were twice as likely to be in remission from AN compared with patients receiving FBT.  In addition to being published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, the article was summarized nicely by the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute.

As I was reading this article, it occurred to me that I have been utilizing a version of PFT with some families in my private practice for years, as I have adapted FBT to suit the needs of each individual family.   For example, it is not uncommon for an adolescent patient with AN to refuse to attend some or all of the family sessions during Phase I (the re-feeding and weight restoration phase).  Personally, I have not found this to be problematic.  After all, in an FBT model, the parents are the primary agents of change in early recovery from AN.   The patient is more of a passive recipient of care – his or her job is simply to show up at the table and eat.

In my experience, most parents make excellent use of the Phase I sessions to receive support, learn more about AN, brainstorm and problem-solve, and collaborate with their spouse in the re-feeding process.  All of these things can be done with or without the child present, so long as the child’s weight is monitored weekly.  The weekly weigh-ins can be completed at the pediatrician’s office or under parental supervision at home.

As another example, many patients are so anxious about eating high-calorie foods, gaining weight, and eliminating exercise that attending sessions –during which these topics are discussed at length – is just too overwhelming.  Increasing a patient’s anxiety can sometimes be counterproductive to treatment goals.  For instance, if the patient is present during discussions of “fortifying” foods (e.g., increasing the caloric density by adding cream, oil, butter, or Benecalorie) or discussions of weight goals, this may heighten her anxiety to the point that she cannot eat these fortified foods, or she may become even more resistant to gaining weight.    For an underweight patient with AN, talking and listening are over-rated.  Eating and gaining weight are essential.

In my experience, patients who do not attend sessions during Phase I tend to have just as much success in recovery as patients who attend every single session.  Furthermore, the vast majority of the time, the kids who refuse to attend sessions in Phase I will begin to attend sessions voluntarily after weight restoration occurs and their treatment progresses through Phase II and Phase III.  By that time, most patients have the cognitive and emotional capacity to participate in their own recovery process and have some interest in getting better.

On the other hand, there are some cases in which it makes more sense to have the patient attend all of the FBT sessions, cases in which her participation in the treatment enhances her success in recovery.  Often (though not always), these are cases in which the patient is older, more independent, less cognitively impaired, less anxious, more curious about the process, and/or has some degree of personal motivation to recover at the outset.

I have also found that it is also very important for the patient to attend all sessions in cases where the parents are less willing or less able to take full responsibility for their child’s recovery.   For instance, I’ve worked with families in FBT in which both parents have active addictions to drugs or alcohol, families in which another member is coping with a health crisis (e.g., a parent with a recent cancer diagnosis), families in which the parents are going through an acrimonious divorce, and large families with many young children.   These have been cases in which the parents, while supportive in theory, were unable to invest as much time and energy into their child’s recovery as other families.  The patients from these families, in my observation, tended to be more resilient and more autonomous than other teens, likely .as a result of growing up in challenging environments.  I have observed that the adolescents in these more challenging situations have been able to (or perhaps required to) take on a greater degree of independence earlier in the recovery process.

The outcomes of this clinical trial were disappointingly low for both forms of treatment.  At the end of treatment, only 43% of patients receiving PFT had achieved remission, and only 22% of patients receiving FBT achieved remission.   Before you become discouraged, however, please allow me to explain my theories as to why remission rates were so low.

First, I believe that the poor outcomes of this study were, at least in part, due to the fact that families were randomly assigned to one type of treatment or the other.   Of course, in conducting a controlled clinical trial to study the efficacy of treatments, it is necessary to use random assignment to control for confounding variables and increase the validity of the results.  I suspect that if families were able to choose between PFT and FBT based on their own needs, desires, circumstances, and knowledge of their child, the outcomes would have been significantly more promising.  This has certainly proven to be true in my practice.

Consider the “treatment refusers” I described above, with whom I have effectively used PFT essentially by default.  On the other hand, consider the teens who come from more challenging family environments, whose participation early in treatment is instrumental to their recovery.  If the families with “treatment refusers” were randomly assigned to Family-Based Treatment, or if families with other significant challenges were randomly assigned to Parent-Focused Treatment, I suspect that the patient would be much less likely to occur.

Second, the course of treatment in this study was 18 sessions over the course of 6 months.  This sounds woefully insufficient to me.  In my experience, some patients do achieve full remission within 6 months, but this is certainly not the norm.  In my practice, most patients with AN are fully weight-restored within 3 or 4 months, but full remission of cognitive, emotional, and behavioral symptoms generally takes 12-18 months of treatment.   It is not unusual for patients to require 2 or 3 years of treatment in order to attain full remission and become ready to manage their eating independently.

I point out these time frames because I do not want patients or their families to feel discouraged when recovery takes so much longer than they expected.  The patients in these clinical trials who did not achieve full remission at end of treatment are the NORM, not the exception, and this is not due to any failure on the part of the patient or the parents.  Rather, the research study itself places unrealistic expectations on individuals with AN and their families.   Any clinician who has treated many patients with AN could tell you that full remission after 6 months is simply unrealistic for a majority of AN sufferers.  Individuals who have gone through treatment for AN, and parents who have helped their children recover, know all too well that vestiges of AN are often present for many months after weight has been fully restored.

I am confident that the majority of adolescents with AN who are not in full remission after 6 months of treatment will go on to achieve full remission within two or three years, especially when they utilize evidence-based, family-centered care.

World Eating Disorders Action Day

Today – June 2, 2016 – is the first annual World Eating Disorders Action Day.

In honor of this day, my esteemed colleague, Dr. Tarah Martos, and I hosted the first annual South Florida Parent Summit on Eating Disorders.  The summit provided a unique opportunity for parents of eating disorder sufferers to unite, empower one another, and learn from each other.   We spoke with the parents about envisioning recovery, relapse prevention, and a promising new treatment from Colombia University which involves habit reversal.   The lovely parents who attended the summit, despite having sons and daughters of different ages and with different presentations of illness, felt an instant connection with one another, and a freedom in discussing their experiences with other parents who really, truly get it.

I am proud that World Eating Disorders Action Day exists, and I am honored to be a part of it.   The public health messages surrounding this day have been devoted to increasing awareness that eating disorders are serious but treatable illnesses, caused by a complex interaction of genes and environment, which affect people of all ages, genders, socioeconomic statuses, and ethnic backgrounds.   These are messages I stand behind as a psychologist, as a writer, as an activist, and as a mother of a little girl whom I hope can come of age in a world where the content of these public service announcements is common knowledge.

 

The Power of Families

The first World Eating Disorders Action Day (WEDAD) will be held on June 2, 2016.  This is an event that I support with hope and enthusiasm.  Since opening my private practice in 2009, I have been an advocate for, and practitioner of, evidence-based treatments for eating disorders and related mental health conditions.

In my clinical practice, I am consistently awed and inspired by the power of families.  Parents have unique knowledge about their children and unparalleled investment in their children’s long-term well-being.  In addition, parents are full-time witnesses to their children’s moods, behaviors, and eating habits.

It should not come as a surprise, then, that patients are more likely to recover when their parents are actively involved in their treatment.  The scientific evidence base is strongest for Family-Based Treatment (FBT), also known as the Maudsley Approach, which empowers parents to intervene directly to help their child restore a healthy weight, resume normal eating patterns, and return to typical adolescent development.   I have utilized FBT since opening my practice, and the results I have observed are nothing short of astounding.

And yet, in the world of eating disorder treatment, parents continue to be pushed aside and dismissed.   It is common practice for a 14-year-old with Anorexia Nervosa to meet privately with a dietitian as her worried parents (who do the family’s grocery shopping and cooking) remain in the waiting room.  Treatment centers often tout “family involvement” as part of their program, but this may amount to nothing more than a weekend visit during their daughter’s 2-month stay.   The professionals in charge may devise a treatment plan for a teenage patient, but the parents never see the document, let alone participate in creating it.

This is unacceptable in 2016.  We know better.

My clinical practice is based upon the belief that parents should be fully informed and actively involved in their child’s treatment.   I convey to parents that they are the experts on their child, and they are the leaders of their child’s treatment team.  I encourage parents to ask questions, to raise concerns, to speak up when they disagree with something I say.  As an expert in eating disorder treatment, I work as a consultant to the parents on behalf of the child.   My goal, then, is to become obsolete as the family learns to help their child recover and stay well.

There are professionals who see patients weekly as outpatients and professionals who see patients for weeks or months at a time in treatment centers.  Then there are parents who spend a lifetime as guardians of their children’s health.  For decades, the balance of power in eating disorder treatment has rested firmly with the professionals.  As our field advances, I would like to see the balance of power shift towards families.  I would like for families to receive more information, more tools, and more coaching in how to help their loved one thrive.  I would like to witness an era of transparency, accessibility, and open communication in which clinicians present to families the full range of treatment options, explain to families what interventions they use and why, along with evidence supporting them.

In this spirit of parent empowerment and true collaboration between families and clinicians, my colleague, Dr. Tarah Martos, and I are honoring World Eating Disorders Action Day by hosting the first annual South Florida Parent Summit on Eating Disorders.   This event, held at my office in Coral Gables on June 2, will involve psycho-education, information, coaching, and parent-to-parent support.   Our goal is to help parents feel confident and competent to guide their loved one towards full recovery.

Families are intrinsically powerful.  As a psychologist, my job is not to grant power to parents, snatch power from them, or wield power over them.  Rather, my job is to remind parents that they have always held the power to help their children heal, grow, and thrive.  I strive to provide parents with the support, guidance, and information they need to unleash their parental power and use it to fight the eating disorder on behalf of their beloved child.