Rethinking Residential Treatment: Less is More

I am not a fan of residential treatment for eating disorders as it exists today. I am not aware of any scientific research suggesting that residential treatment is superior to outpatient treatment, with the exception of marketing materials from residential treatment centers (which have an obvious bias and financial incentive). We do know that hospital admissions and stints in residential treatment are poor prognostic factors – patients who remain at home and recover through outpatient treatment are more likely to recover than those who go through residential care. To be sure, the relationship between residential treatment and prognosis may be correlational rather than causal. Patients who are sent away to residential treatment generally have longer duration of illness, greater severity of illness, more psychiatric comorbidity, and a history of unsuccessful outpatient treatment.

There is one recently published randomized controlled trial of outpatient vs. residential treatment. Results of this study demonstrated that adolescents who were randomly assigned to outpatient treatment fared just as well as those who were randomly assigned to residential treatment. Given that outpatient treatment is less expensive and less disruptive to the adolescent’s life, the authors conclude that outpatient treatment is preferable.

I am a firm believer in evidence-based outpatient treatments which keep family members fully informed and actively involved whenever possible. Patients who receive treatment which prioritizes nutritional rehabilitation, weight restoration, and cessation of restricting/bingeing/purging behaviors as the essential first step, are more likely to achieve full recovery in less time. In an ideal situation, a skilled therapist can utilize the strengths and resources of the family and coach them in understanding eating disorders, refeeding their loved one, and interrupting her eating disorder behaviors. Families can also be coached in how to maintain a home environment which is conducive to recovery while their loved one participates in therapy to acquire healthy coping skills, learn how to prevent relapse, and manage any comorbid conditions. This is how the Maudsley Method of Family-Based Treatment works. At this time, the Maudsley method is the only empirically-supported treatment for adolescent anorexia nervosa, and has also been shown to be equally effective in treating adolescent bulimia nervosa. Empirical studies on the use of a modified Maudsley approach in treating young adults with eating disorders have not yet been published. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that many young adults respond favorably to a modified Maudsley approach – even those who have been ill for many years and have had numerous stays in inpatient or residential treatment. And, let’s face it: we don’t really have a good alternative treatment for young adults with anorexia nervosa.

The majority of patients who are treated with Maudsley do achieve and maintain full recovery. Simply put, Maudsley works, and there aren’t any great alternatives. Thus, Maudsley should typically be the first-line treatment, especially for adolescents with anorexia nervosa, and should commence immediately following diagnosis. That being said, Maudsley may not be appropriate in a minority of cases. For example, families who are unable to find evidence-based treatment providers near their home, families in which neither parent has the necessary time or energy due to very demanding careers or caring for other small children, families in which parents cannot agree to Maudsley and refuse to compromise or work together, families in which there is abuse or addiction, or families in which one or both parents suffers from a physical or mental illness which impairs their ability to parent their child effectively.

Despite the promise of the Maudsley Method, it is not necessarily effective or appropriate for all patients (this statement, while often cited by critics of Maudsley, is annoying and virtually meaningless because NO form of treatment for any psychological or medical illness is ever appropriate and effective for 100% of patients. This is not a weakness of a particular treatment method; this is just reality). For the aforementioned reasons, there is, and probably always will be, a need for residential treatment for eating disorders.

Residential treatment for eating disorders, as it exists today, has several benefits and several drawbacks. The benefits include:
• Supported nutrition to promote appropriate weight restoration
• Round-the-clock monitoring to prevent patients from engaging in bingeing, purging, restricting, and substance use
• Protection from self-harm and suicide
• Providing the patient with a respite from the stresses of school, work, sports, and everyday life
• Providing the family with a respite from the daily strain of caring for their loved one

The drawbacks to residential treatment, as it exists today, include:
• Prolonged separation from the family and home environment
• Prolonged absence from school, friends, extracurricular activities, and normal routines
• Exposure to other eating disorder patients, which can result in acquisition of new symptoms, solidification of identity as an “eating disorder patient,” and competitiveness with other patients about who is sicker or thinner
• Artificial environment – a “bubble” – which does not translate to real-world living
• Exposure to outdated and unproven theories about the etiology and treatment of eating disorders (e.g., blaming “family dysfunction,” search for “root causes,” exploration of supposed “underlying issues”)
• Failure to plan adequately for a smooth transition home
• Insufficient family involvement (weekly phone sessions and “family weekend” pay lip service to family involvement, but they often play the blame game, focus on presumed family dysfunction, advise parents to “back off” and not be the “food police,” and fail to educate families as to how to help their loved one recover. In essence, many family sessions send all the wrong messages and fail to send the helpful ones).
• Over-diagnosis of and over-medication for supposed comorbid disorders which are largely, if not entirely, the result of malnourishment and / or refeeding
• Attempts to use psychotherapy of any kind on patients who are not able to benefit cognitively or emotionally.

These last two points are particularly striking to me (granted, these problems occur with less-informed outpatient treatment as well). I have had many patients who were diagnosed with and medicated for severe mental illnesses such as major depression, bipolar disorder, or even borderline personality disorder, while they were underweight or re-feeding in residential treatment. In many patients, these symptoms decrease substantially or disappear altogether once the patient has reached and maintained a healthy body weight for a number of months. I have several patients who arrived at my office after years of ineffective treatment, with multiple psychiatric diagnoses, taking multiple medications. After weight restoration and maintenance along with evidence-based psychological interventions, these patients no longer required medication for any psychiatric symptoms and no longer met criteria for ANY mental disorder. Sometimes, less is more.

What many psychiatrists and other mental health professionals fail to understand is that all people who are malnourished or re-feeding, even those without eating disorders, exhibit symptoms that mimic certain mental disorders (see Minnesota Starvation Study). Diagnoses made while a patient is underweight or re-feeding are often inaccurate. Medicating a patient for a presumed mental illness which is actually the direct result of a malnourished and / or refeeding brain is at best ineffective and at worst quite harmful. Obviously, many patients with eating disorders do have genuine comorbid psychiatric issues, and clearly these need to be identified and treated. But even those patients with legitimate comorbidities may find that their other symptoms are more manageable, or require less medication, when their eating disorder is under control.

Nearly all patients in residential treatment for eating disorders are there because they are significantly malnourished or actively engaging in frequent binge/purge behaviors. These are patients with significant (though temporary) brain damage which renders them unable to process emotions, think rationally, perceive other people’s intentions, or think logically about food, weight, or body image. We know that this brain damage is reversible only after months of full nutrition, weight restoration, and abstinence from eating disorder symptoms. I understand the rationale that, since patients are in residential treatment, they should be given every possible type of treatment available from equine therapy to process groups to CBT to psychoanalysis to making pretty necklaces. I understand that the directors of residential treatment centers want to provide patients with every possible tool for recovery. But what if the patients are not yet equipped to use these tools? And what if some of these tools can be harmful? Again, this may be a case of less is more.

In my ideal world, residential treatment would retain the benefits it currently has while eliminating the drawbacks. Here’s how it would work:
• The immediate focus would be on full nutrition, full time so that patients can restore their weight as quickly as is medically safe and can break the binge/purge cycle (if applicable). This would include three meals and three snacks per day, carefully monitored. “Magic plate” would be employed, and patients would be required to eat 100% of their meals and snacks. There would be no “rewards” for eating well or “punishments” for eating too little. Eating disorder patients are punished enough by their illness, so the last thing they need is a punitive external measure. Rather, there would be no alternative other than to consume full nutrition, preferably through food, but otherwise through a supplement or nasogastric tube.
• Patients would be carefully monitored and prevented from hiding food, bingeing, or purging.
• Patients would be monitored for urges to self-injure or commit suicide and kept safe from any possible means of self-harm.
• No new diagnoses would be made and no new medications prescribed.
• No individual therapy, family therapy, or group therapy of any kind would be provided. However, a psychologist specializing in eating disorders would be available daily to provide supportive counseling for patients who request it.
• Patients would spend their days participating in relaxing, rejuvenating activities such as reading, watching movies, playing board games, getting massages, taking nature walks and practicing gentle yoga (when medically appropriate).
• Patients would be educated about the genetic and neurobiological basis of eating disorders as well as the role of under-nutrition and compulsive exercise in the development and maintenance of these illnesses. They would be provided with scientifically valid information on effective treatments for eating disorders and relapse prevention.
• Through phone conferences and/or in-person sessions, family members would be educated about the genetic and neurobiological basis of eating disorders as well as the role of under-nutrition and compulsive exercise in the development and maintenance of these illnesses. They would be provided with scientifically valid information on effective treatments for eating disorders and skills to help their loved one continue on the path to recovery at home.
• Family members would be provided with daily updates on their loved one’s progress, regardless of the patient’s age. Family members would also be encouraged to contact the treatment center at any time with questions or concerns.
• Family members and friends of the patient would be strongly encouraged to call and visit the patient whenever possible.
• A physician would set an accurate target weight range for each patient, taking into account her pediatric growth charts, weight/build history, and genetics. The target range would represent the patients’ ideal, healthiest weight, not some arbitrary minimum BMI. Research shows that the vast majority of adult patients require a BMI of at least 20 in order to achieve complete physical and mental recovery, so that would be a good starting point.

Patients would be discharged from my ideal treatment facility only after the following criteria were met:
• The patient has achieved 100% of her ideal body weight.
• The patient eats 100% of her meals and snacks with little resistance.
• The patient reports a significant decrease in urges to restrict, binge, or purge.
• The patient is not experiencing suicidal ideation or urges to self-harm.
• The patient expresses readiness for discharge and willingness to work towards recovery.
• The family has been well-educated about eating disorders and feels confident to manage their loved one’s symptoms at home.
• The patient and her family members have collaboratively developed a specific, written outpatient treatment plan. This plan includes referrals for evidence-based psychological treatment for the individual patient and her family as well as regular medical monitoring. In addition, the plan contains specific strategies for dealing with the patient’s eating disorder behaviors and for creating a pro-recovery home environment.

Although it exists only in my imagination, I would predict that a residential treatment center such as the one I described would be more effective than most currently existing treatment centers. It would also be much cheaper, since far fewer staff would be required. Granted, patients may have a longer duration of residential treatment than they do now, since the goal is 100% weight restoration, but patients would be less likely to relapse. Since this treatment center would be cheaper anyway, and patients would be less likely to require repeated admissions, the overall cost to the patient’s family and to society would be much lower.

Eating Disorders: Prevention and Early Intervention Tips for Parents

There is a fair amount of internet advice for parents on how to prevent eating disorders in their children. The majority of this advice centers around teaching children about healthy eating habits, moderate exercise, positive body image, and media literacy. This is great advice for parents to follow, but it does not prevent eating disorders. It may help to prevent body dissatisfaction and dieting, but these things are not the same as an eating disorder.

Ironically, many children and adolescents who are in treatment for anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa report that their illness was triggered by a health or nutrition class at school, training for a sport, or a general desire to adopt the much-touted principles of “healthy eating and exercise.” Unfortunately, most of the information children receive on the benefits of “healthy eating and exercise” is really our fat-phobic society’s disguised attempt to shield our precious children from this horrible “obesity epidemic.” To make matters worse, this information is delivered to children by teachers, physicians, coaches, and parents – supposedly knowledgeable authority figures whose job is to educate, protect, and nurture them. Children who are predisposed to eating disorders are usually compliant, rule-bound, anxious, obsessive, perfectionistic, driven, and eager to please. They are virtual sponges who soak up this “healthy eating and exercise” information and follow it to the letter. The obesity hysteria terrifies them, and their obsessive, perfectionistic temperament makes them stellar dieters. This is the perfect storm for the development of an eating disorder.

I do not believe we should stop educating children about nutrition and exercise out of fear that they will develop eating disorders, much as I don’t believe we should stop educating adolescents about safe sex and contraception out of fear that they will become sexually active. More information is usually better than less, as long as the information is accurate, useful, and effective. The middle school and high school syllabi on sex education provide information which is accurate, useful, and effective (whether kids act on that information is another story). The information kids receive on “healthy eating and exercise” has not succeeded in improving their overall health, preventing eating disorders, or combating this alleged “obesity epidemic.”

I believe that, in terms of nutrition, kids should be taught about what to embrace rather than what to avoid. They should learn the importance of eating lots of fruit, vegetables, dairy products, protein, fat, and grains, and drinking plenty of water. They should be taught to enjoy their favorite snacks and deserts as well. They should not be taught about calories or the evils of sugar and fat; they should not be advised to avoid any foods, they should not learn to label foods as “good” or “bad,” and they should not be taught about the dangers of obesity or the virtue of thinness. Most importantly, I believe children should be taught about the dangers of dieting, much as they are taught about the dangers of drugs, alcohol, and unprotected sex. The dangers of dieting are grossly underrated.

Even if nutrition education is accurate, useful, and effective, it will not prevent eating disorders. That being said, what steps can parents take to prevent their children from developing eating disorders? In my opinion, it all boils down to three basic principles: 1.) accurate information, 2.) vigilance, and 3.) immediate, aggressive, effective intervention.

Accurate information
The pop-psychology literature will have you believe that if you have a healthy body image yourself, encourage healthy body image in your children, nurture positive self-esteem, and preach the importance of healthy eating habits and exercise, your child will not develop an eating disorder. This assumption is simply untrue. Parents need to know that seemingly healthy, well-adjusted children with positive body images and excellent parents develop eating disorders all the time. Good parenting does not make your child immune. It can, however, improve your child’s chances of full recovery.

If your child develops an eating disorder, let go of guilt, shame, and self-blame. While it is natural for parents to blame themselves, guilt is a hindrance to effective action. Of course you have made mistakes in parenting – everyone has! You may be an imperfect parent, but this does not mean you caused your child’s illness. Despite what you may have heard in the media, there is no reliable scientific evidence to suggest that parents cause eating disorders. If your child’s pediatrician, dietician, or therapist suggests that the eating disorder is your fault, this is an indication that he or she is not aware of recent research on the etiology of eating disorders and effective treatments. Get a second opinion. Anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa are biologically-based brain disorders, just like autism and schizophrenia. Although you are not to blame for causing your child’s eating disorder, it is your responsibility as a parent to ensure that she gets proper treatment. This responsibility includes protecting your child from outdated, ineffective treatments, which can often do more harm than good.

Parents also need to know that eating disorders are not limited to rich, white teenage girls. This stereotype is antiquated and dangerous, as it prevents individuals outside these demographic categories from being diagnosed and properly treated. Eating disorders strike children, adolescents, and adults; girls and boys, men and women; people of all ethnic, cultural, and economic backgrounds. Several years ago, during my training, I treated a severely underweight teenage boy with anorexia nervosa whose previous pediatrician had told him: “If you were a girl, I’d say you were anorexic.” As a result of this doctor’s failure to intervene, the patient’s condition rapidly deteriorated over the next two years, and by the time he presented in my office, he was in horrible shape.

Vigilance
Here are some concrete steps that parents can take to help prevent eating disorders. You may notice that, unlike other prevention tips you may have read, these tips center around proper nutrition and exercise. This is because all the feminist, feel-good, positive-body image talk in the world is not going to prevent eating disorders. Remember, anorexia nervosa has existed for centuries, long before thinness became fashionable. Eating disorders are triggered by an energy imbalance (consuming fewer calories than you expend) and perpetuated by malnutrition. If a child never becomes malnourished, she is extremely unlikely to develop an eating disorder.
• Make family meals a priority. As a parent, it is your job to prepare and serve nutritious foods. It is far better for a family to sit down to a balanced breakfast of cereal, milk, fruit, juice, and yogurt instead of grabbing a nutrigrain bar and running out the door.
• Closely monitor any changes in your child’s eating habits. Even seemingly “positive” dietary changes such as skipping desert, becoming vegetarian, or reducing fat intake can signal the onset of an eating disorder.
• Adopt a zero-tolerance policy towards any level of malnutrition. Do not allow your child to diet, skip meals, or cut out entire food groups. Children and teenagers need to eat three substantial, nutritious, well-balanced meals every day. Supervised, supported full nutrition is the best defense against an eating disorder.
• Be aware that eating disorders are sometimes triggered by unintentional malnourishment (for example, weight loss due to physical illness, depression, anxiety, stress, or surgery; fasting for religious purposes; side effects of a medication; intense physical exercise without a commensurate increase in nutrition). This type of malnourishment must be taken equally seriously. Dieting is not the only pathway to eating disorders (although it is the most common pathway in modern Western cultures).

Parents need to be on guard for early signs of eating disorders, especially during early adolescence, when most eating disorders develop. Since eating disorders are genetically transmitted, your child is much more vulnerable to developing an eating disorder if you or a relative has suffered from an eating disorder. Family histories of major depression and other mood disorders, anxiety disorders, OCD, and addictions are also risk factors for developing eating disorders. If you have a family history of eating disorders or other mental illnesses, you should know that your child is at greater risk for developing an eating disorder, and you should be extra vigilant.

Some early signs of eating disorders masquerade as “healthy” behaviors or extreme dedication, or can easily be dismissed as typical teenage behavior. However, parents know their kids well. Most parents recognize, long before formal diagnosis, that something is “not quite right” with their child, but they aren’t sure what is wrong or they don’t know what to do. Here are some early signs and symptoms:
• Change in eating habits. This can take many forms, including following a formal diet plan, skipping meals, eating only at certain times, refusing to eat with other people, or anxiety around food. Even seemingly positive dietary changes, such as becoming vegetarian, reducing fat intake, skipping snacks and deserts, and eating only organic foods, can be early signs of an eating disorder.
• Increased preoccupation with food: taking about food, reading diet books, collecting recipes, cooking, serving food to others, sudden interest in what other people are eating.
• Change in mood or behavior. Parents often notice dramatic changes in their child’s personality, such as irritability, anxiety, depression, moodiness, frequent crying, restlessness, withdrawal, changes in sleeping patterns, or loss of interest. Increased dedication to schoolwork, sports, or other extracurricular activities and obsessive behavior in other areas can also be early signs.
• Increase in exercise. The child may begin solo running, take up a new sport, or show increased dedication to her current sports. If she is an athlete, she may begin training excessively outside of team practices. If she is a dancer, she may begin practicing at home, signing up for more dance classes, and auditioning for every possible performance opportunity.
• Weight loss, failure to gain weight, or failure to make expected gains in height. ANY weight loss in a child or adolescent, even a few pounds, may be cause for alarm. ANY failure to grow or gain weight as expected warrants further examination.
• Loss of menstrual periods.
• Signs of binge eating (for example, large amounts of food disappearing overnight).
• Signs of purging (for example, discovering laxatives in your child’s purse or smells of vomit in her bathroom).

Immediate, Aggressive, Effective intervention
I have never heard a parent say: “I wish I had waited longer before getting my child into treatment.” Most parents whose children are in treatment for eating disorders regret not intervening sooner. In addition, many parents report that they wish they had sought out evidence-based treatment immediately, rather than continuing with ineffective treatment as their child’s health declines. If you notice any of the signs or symptoms listed above, take action immediately. Here’s how:
• Educate yourself about eating disorders and evidence-based treatment. FEAST (Families Empowered and Supporting Treatment for Eating Disorders) is an excellent resource for parents.
• Do not praise your child for her “healthy eating” habits or willpower around food. Instead, tell her that you have noticed a change in her eating habits and that you are concerned. For example: “I notice that you’re not enjoying ice cream with our family anymore. What has changed?”
• Be prepared for your child to insist that she is just trying to eat healthily, exercise more, or improve her performance in sports or dance. Many eating disorders begin this way but quickly spiral into deadly obsessions.
• Be prepared for your child to be in denial or to resist your efforts to intervene. Teenagers never say: “Mom, I think I’m developing anorexia nervosa, and I’m worried about my recent weight loss.” Denial, resistance, and lack of insight are symptoms of this disease, NOT indications that everything is OK. Don’t back down.
• Don’t waste time on “why.” When your child is developing an eating disorder, it is tempting to try to understand the reasons for it. Resist this temptation and tackle the symptoms immediately. The very foundation of ineffective eating disorder treatment begins with endless search for the “root cause” while the child continues to starve, binge, purge, and over-exercise as her physical and mental health deteriorate. A patient with an active eating disorder is generally unable to make effective use of psychotherapy because her brain is not functioning properly. Eating disorders are life-threatening illnesses with serious mental and physical risks. Think of your child’s eating disorder as a tumor. It must be removed immediately, or it will grow and metastasize. The surgeon does not need to know the reason for the tumor in order to operate and remove it. The sooner you intervene, the better your child’s chances for complete recovery. There will be plenty of time for psychological work, including an exploration of potential triggers, later on in recovery, once your child is well-nourished and physically healthy.
• As soon as you suspect a problem, take your child to the pediatrician for a complete physical exam. Unfortunately, most physicians do not have specialized training in eating disorders and are unlikely to notice an eating disorder until it is in its advanced stages. Thus, you cannot always trust your child’s pediatrician to spot a problem. I have had many patients whose physicians have completely overlooked telltale signs such as weight loss, missed menstrual periods, or failure to grow. Consider taking your child to a pediatrician or adolescent medicine physician who specializes in eating disorders. Remember, trust your parental instincts. If you think there is something wrong with your child, you are probably right. It is far better to intervene immediately and later discover that everything is fine, rather than waiting until your child is in the acute phase of a life-threatening mental illness.
• If you intervene at the first sign of an eating disorder, your child may not meet full criteria for anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa. Thus, she may be diagnosed with Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified, or she may not be diagnosed with an eating disorder at all. This does not mean that your child’s problem isn’t serious or that immediate, aggressive intervention isn’t necessary. It simply means that your child is in the beginning stages of what is likely to become a severe, life-threatening mental illness if left untreated (or improperly treated). Your child is most likely to achieve complete, lasting recovery treatment begins immediately, rather than waiting for her to develop full-syndrome anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa and the myriad of psychological and physical problems these illnesses entail.
• If your child has been in therapy for a while and she continues to restrict her diet, lose weight, binge, or purge, therapy is not working. In early recovery, it does not matter if your child has a good relationship with her therapist, enjoys speaking with her, or trusts her. The therapeutic relationship is only therapeutic insofar as it promotes health, wellness, and recovery. Insight, self-exploration, and rapport are useless in the wake of malnutrition. Speak with your child’s therapist about taking a different approach. If your child’s therapist refuses to talk to you, or if you are not satisfied with the results of treatment, find a different therapist.
• Seek evidence-based psychological treatment for your child and your family. Most therapists, even ones who specialize in eating disorders, are not up-to-date on the latest research and most effective treatments. I have worked with many families who have taken their child to multiple eating disorders specialists over a period of several years and seen no symptom improvement whatsoever. This is usually because the therapists were not aware of recent scientific research on eating disorders and were not using evidence-based treatments. For children and adolescents, the strongest evidence base is for Maudsley Family-Based Treatment (FBT). Maudsley FBT is a highly practical, empirically-validated treatment method which empowers the family to help the patient recover and focuses on immediate restoration of nutritional and physical health before tackling psychological issues. Research has shown that 75-90% of adolescents treated with Maudsley FBT recover within 12 months and maintain their recovery at 5-year follow-up. In contrast, traditional treatment generally takes 5-7 years and only 33% of patients achieve full recovery.
• Remember that you are an essential member of your child’s treatment team. Your child’s treatment will be most effective if you are fully informed and actively involved. Interview any potential physicians, dieticians, therapists, and psychiatrists without your child present before your child meets them. Make sure that you are comfortable with their philosophy of eating disorders and their approach to treatment. Insist on being informed about your child’s progress in treatment and ask what you can do to help her recover. If the therapist will not inform you or include you in treatment decisions, find a new therapist.
• Recognize that your child’s eating disorder is neither her fault nor her choice. Do not wait for her to “choose” recovery, because she can’t. It is your job to choose recovery for her until she is well enough to take ownership of her treatment. Try to separate the disorder from the child you know and love. She is in there somewhere, and some day, she will thank you.

Fighting the Wrong Battles

I’ve become increasingly annoyed at the conflation of “body dissatisfaction” with “eating disorder.” The former is a culturally-driven socio-political phenomenon, whereas the latter is a severe, biologically-based mental illness. The former afflicts over 85% of American females, whereas the latter strikes only a small fraction of us (less than 1% for anorexia nervosa and 2-3% for bulimia nervosa).

There has been a great deal of controversy surrounding supermodel Kate Moss’s comment that “Nothing tastes as good as being thin feels,” and around Ralph Lauren’s ridiculously photo-shopped ads. Eating disorder clinicians and activists have been quite vocal about their opposition to these media bytes, arguing that they encourage eating disorders. I know that these professionals and activists have noble intentions, but I believe they are fighting the wrong battles.

I object to underweight models not because I believe they cause eating disorders, but because being underweight is harmful to the models’ physical and mental health, and viewing these images on a regular basis contributes to body dissatisfaction in most people. I refuse to have magazines in my office waiting room not because I believe they cause eating disorders, but because I am opposed to the blatant objectification of women. Besides, I think that fashion magazines are sexist, superficial, and boring.

Hanging in my office is a certificate of membership from NEDA (National Eating Disorders Association) which thanks me for my “support in the effort to eliminate eating disorders and body dissatisfaction.” I really wish they had eliminated those last three words.

I think the conflation of sadness with depression is analogous. The former, in its extreme and persistent form, is one symptom of the latter. The former is a natural, healthy emotional state that every human being experiences from time to time, while the latter is a serious mental illness caused by a combination of neurobiological, psychological, and environmental factors. I remember an incident that illustrates this principle beautifully. I was conducting an initial evaluation with an adolescent girl and her parents. When I asked the father whether he thought his daughter was depressed, he replied: “I don’t believe in depression.” Interesting response, I thought. As if depression were something like God or heaven or Santa Clause, something to be believed in or not. I asked the father to elaborate on his beliefs. He replied: “I think we all get sad sometimes, and that’s OK.” I smiled and gently responded that I agree with him – yes, all of us do get sad sometimes, and yes, that’s OK. However, some people experience prolonged, intense feelings of sadness accompanied by sleep and appetite disturbances, fatigue, thoughts of suicide, loss of interest, and difficulty concentrating. These people are experiencing major depression.”

Imagine if, in exchange for my membership in the National Depression Association, I received a certificate thanking me for my support in the effort to eliminate Major Depressive Disorder and sadness.” Laughable, isn’t it? Well, so is the ED/Body Dissatisfaction comparison. It trivializes the anguish that eating disordered people experience, and it falsely encourages those whose lives have not been touched by eating disorders to think that they “know how it feels.” Well, guess what. They don’t.

Eliminating all sadness in the world would probably not affect the prevalence of Major Depressive Disorder because sadness is but one symptom of depression, whereas depression is not a result of sadness. Likewise, eliminating body dissatisfaction would be fantastic for everyone, but it would not result in the elimination of eating disorders.

Contrary to popular belief (and, sadly enough, the belief of many eating disorders professionals), the media’s glorification of thinness is not responsible for the so-called “epidemic” of anorexia nervosa. Also contrary to popular belief, the incidence of anorexia nervosa has not increased dramatically in recent decades. Cases of what would now be diagnosed as anorexia nervosa have been documented as early as the medieval times, long before thinness was considered fashionable. These fasting saints shunned all sustenance to the point of emaciation not because they wanted to be skinny, but because they believed it brought them closer to God.

Unbeknownst to many, anorexia nervosa occurs in many non-western cultures. For example, recent studies have shown that the prevalence of anorexia nervosa in China and Ghana is equal to its prevalence in the US. The major difference is that patients in non-western cultures relate their starvation to profound self-control, moral superiority, and spiritual wholeness rather than to a desire to be thinner. Today’s American anorexics, like their medieval predecessors and non-western counterparts, all experience prolonged inability to nourish themselves, dramatic weight loss to the point of emaciation, amenorrhea, and denial of the seriousness of their condition. The self-reported reasons for starvation, it seems, are the only things that change across time and culture. I believe that an anorexic’s so-called reasons for starvation are simply her attempts to derive meaning from her symptoms, which are always filtered through a cultural lens. An anorexic does not starve herself because she wants to be thin, or because she wants to be holy, or because she wants to show supreme self-control. She starves herself because she suffers from a brain disease, of which self-starvation is a symptom.

Recent research suggests that anorexia nervosa is not a culture-bound syndrome, but bulimia nervosa is. Anorexia nervosa seems to be a distinct genotype that has been around for centuries and that manifests itself in various cultures and eras. Bulimia nervosa, on the other hand, appears to occur in individuals with a certain genetic / neurobiological predisposition who are exposed to a culture which combines massive amounts of readily available, highly palatable foods with a cultural mandate for thinness. This research implies that reducing or eliminating the cultural glorification of thinness may indeed reduce the prevalence of bulimia nervosa, but will have no effect on the prevalence of anorexia nervosa. I suppose that, once this awful waif model craze blows over, anorexics will simply find another “reason” to starve.

What’s That About?

“It’s about control.”

This statement has been applied to everything from OCD to eating disorders to self-injury to domestic violence. But, really, what does this statement mean?

When I hear that X is about Y, I generally interpret this statement in one of two ways: 1.) Y is a theme of X or 2.) Y is the most salient feature of X. For example, if someone says that Romeo and Juliet is about undying love, my interpretation is that undying love is a primary theme of Romeo and Juliet. Or if someone says: “My birthday is about me,” I interpret that as “I am the most important person on my birthday” in terms of attention, presents, and deciding how to celebrate.

In regards to the cliché that a certain psychological problem is about control, both of these interpretations make sense to a certain extent. Control is both a theme and a salient feature of OCD insofar as sufferers are overly preoccupied with controlling their external environment, as well as their thoughts and actions related to their particular obsession. For example, a person with OCD may spend hours scrubbing her body and cleaning her home in order to control the spread of germs and prevent herself or others from becoming ill.

Control is both a theme and a salient feature of eating disorders insofar as sufferers become preoccupied with controlling their dietary intake, exercise, and weight. Individuals with anorexia tend to be “over-controlled,” rigid, and perfectionistic not only with food but in other areas of their lives, while individuals with bulimia experience periods of “dyscontrol” of their emotions and food intake, resulting in binge /purge episodes.

Control is both a theme and a salient feature in the lives of individuals who engage in self-injurious behaviors such as cutting. Many, though not all, individuals who cut have experienced physical or sexual abuse, which results in feeling a lack of personal control over one’s life and one’s body. People who cut usually experience overwhelming emotions that they are unable to control. Some people use self-injury as an interpersonal message with an intent to control or manipulate others.

Control is both a theme and a salient feature in cycles of domestic violence. Through subtle and overt messages, abusers control and manipulate their victims. It is easy for abusers to control their victims because the victims are usually smaller and physically weaker than they are. In most cases, abusers have financial and / or emotional control over their victims. And, sadly, victims feel a devastating loss of personal control over their own lives.

I am concerned, however, that people who claim that a mental illness or psychological phenomenon is about control have an entirely different interpretation of this phrase. For most people, I think “It’s about control” translates to “it is caused by a lack of control or a need for control.” This interpretation has no empirical backing and, when espoused by treatment professionals, leads to ineffective treatment.

For instance, many therapists believe that eating disorders are “about control,” meaning that they believe that the etiology of eating disorders is rooted in a subconscious need for control. As a result of this theory, their treatment entails helping the patient gain a sense of personal control in other areas of her life, and advising her parents to “back off” of the power struggle around meals, with the assumption that eventually the patient will no longer feel the need to control her food intake.

There is no scientific basis for this theory or this treatment approach, and I have never met a person who has recovered this way. I’m sure such people exist, I’ve just never seen them. I would presume that these individuals went through years of treatment, suffered numerous medical and psychological problems, and spent many thousands of dollars before finally recovering. Recent scientific evidence suggests that eating disorders are biologically-based, genetically transmitted brain diseases that are triggered by an energy imbalance and perpetuated by malnutrition. There’s no room for “control” in this etiology.

While I’m on the subject of about, there’s another use of the word about that perplexes and frustrates me. Case in point: a very well-regarded eating disorder recovery website has the following mission statement on its homepage:

“We are dedicated to raising awareness about eating disorders… emphasizing always that eating disorders are NOT about food and weight.”

What does this mean? Surely, it cannot mean that food and weight are not themes in eating disorders. Nor can it mean that disturbances in food and weight are not a salient feature of eating disorders. By definition, individuals with eating disorders manifest disturbances in eating behavior, weight loss, or excessive preoccupation with weight. I can only assume, then, that this statement means that eating disorders are not caused by food and weight (or disturbances thereof). If this is the meaning of the mission statement, then the statement is undeniably false.

The latest scientific research tells us that eating disorders are, in fact, set into motion by disturbances in eating and weight. A person with a biological predisposition to anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa will not develop the illness unless he or she experiences a disturbance in eating and/or weight. Anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa are triggered by under-nutrition, which may initially be intentional (e.g., the decision to diet, “eat healthy,” or exercise more) or unintentional (e.g., the result of an illness, surgery, injury, medication, or another mental illness such as depression). The cycle of starvation in anorexia nervosa is maintained by malnutrition, and the illness is most severe and most deadly when the patient is underweight. The restrict/binge/purge cycle in bulimia nervosa is also self-perpetuating and is triggered or exacerbated by disturbances in eating behavior and preoccupation with weight. Full nutrition, weight restoration, cessation of restricting, bingeing, and purging behaviors, and decrease in preoccupation with weight are essential for full recovery. In conclusion, eating disorders are absolutely about food and weight. To neglect this perfectly obvious fact is to sabotage treatment.

Scientist-practitioner ranting notwithstanding, I think I do understand what that mission statement is intending to communicate. I think it is trying to convey that eating disorders are not just about food and weight; they also entail tremendous psychological suffering. I think the statement is trying to emphasize that correction of disturbances in eating and weight is not sufficient for full recovery, as psychological issues must be addressed as well. Finally, I think the statement hopes to convey that eating disorders are serious mental illnesses that bear little resemblance to typical dieting and body image woes.

While I applaud the website’s attempt to convey the aforementioned messages, I think the way the statement is worded has the potential to create a misunderstanding (or, at the very least, it doesn’t bring people closer to an accurate understanding). I’m guessing that eating disorder sufferers and their families, as well as the general public, will misinterpret the message, most likely in the manner I described. The consequences of such misinterpretation can be tragic.

We have a responsibility to people with eating disorders to provide them, and their families, with accurate information. Further, we have a responsibility to educate the public about eating disorders in order to reduce stigma, garner support, facilitate early detection, and lobby for more effective treatment. To start, let’s make sure the messages about eating disorders that we send, whether in person, in print, or on the internet, are accurate, understandable, easy to interpret, and scientifically-sound.

Isn’t it about time?