End of Treatment Outcomes for Patients with Bulimia Nervosa & EDNOS

Since I opened my practice in 2009, I have evaluated 10 patients with a diagnosis of Bulimia Nervosa (BN) and 16 patients with a diagnosis of Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS). All patients with a diagnosis of BN or EDNOS who attended an evaluation and at least one treatment session with me, and who are no longer in treatment with me, were included in this sample. Patients I evaluated who did not attend any treatment sessions with me were not included in this sample. Patients who are currently in treatment with me were not included in this sample either. Thus, the sample I will be describing includes a total of 21 patients: 12 with EDNOS and 9 with BN.

As you continue to read, bear in mind that these results are specific to my practice and my patients. These data should not be generalized to other clinicians or other patients.

All patients in this sample were female. Age at intake ranged from 14 – 28, with an average age of 19. Two thirds of the patients (n = 14) had a comorbid disorder, with the most common being Major Depressive Disorder. Sixty-two percent of patients (n = 13) paid my full rate for services, while 38% (n = 8) paid a reduced rate.

For the purpose of calculating duration of illness, the onset of illness was defined as the period of time in which the patient began engaging in behavioral symptoms of eating disorders (e.g., restricting, bingeing, compulsive exercise, purging) as reported by the patient and/or parents. This is an important point to clarify, as symptoms of the illness typically begin long before a diagnosis is made. Length of illness before intake varied considerably, ranging from 6 months to 15 years, with an average of 4.5 years.

Over half of the patients in this sample (n = 11) had a prior history of Anorexia Nervosa (AN). Some of them had been diagnosed with and treated for AN, while others met criteria for AN at one point but were not treated until their illness morphed into BN or EDNOS.

The patients in this sample with EDNOS (n = 12) presented with a range of different symptoms. Half of the patients (n = 6) struggled with some combination of restricting, bingeing, and purging. One quarter of patients (n = 3) presented primarily with binge eating. Seventeen percent (n = 2) had Type I diabetes and withheld insulin (known as “diabulimia”). Eight percent (n = 1) presented with body image distress associated with a history of AN.

Ninety percent of these patients (n = 19) had a history of some type of psychological treatment prior to meeting with me. The majority had been in individual therapy for their eating disorder at some point. Forty-three percent of the sample (n = 9) had been hospitalized for their eating disorder or for a related psychiatric issue prior to beginning treatment with me. Nineteen percent (n = 4) had a history of residential eating disorders treatment and 24% (n = 5) had a history of partial hospitalization, day treatment, or intensive outpatient treatment.

One-third of the patients in this sample (n = 7) were treated with Family-Based Treatment (FBT). The remaining two-thirds (n = 14) were treated with individual Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT), with varying degrees of family involvement. Of the individual therapy patients, 21% (n = 3) had a high level of family involvement, meaning that a family member participated in part of each session, shared information and impressions frequently, was kept apprised of weekly goals and progress, and maintained regular phone and email contact with me. Twenty-nine percent of individual therapy patients (n = 4) had a moderate level of family involvement, meaning that a family member participated in some sessions and had occasional phone and email contact with me. Seven percent of individual therapy patients (n = 1) had a low level of family involvement, meaning that a family member attended one or two sessions, and 43% of individual therapy patients (n = 6) had no family involvement whatsoever.

Parents were the most common family members involved in the patient’s treatment. However, some patients had boyfriends, husbands, stepparents, grandparents, siblings, aunts, and uncles involved depending on their living situation and individual circumstances. Whenever family members were involved with treatment, the focus was on providing them with psycho-education about eating disorders and enlisting them as sources of practical and emotional support for the patient at home. Family members were coached in providing meal support and in assisting their loved one in refraining from eating disorder behaviors such as bingeing and purging.

For patients who received individual therapy, my approach was primarily cognitive-behavioral (CBT). In addition, many patients were taught Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) skills such as distress tolerance and emotion regulation, as well as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) principles such as thought defusion and values-based living.

Patients in this sample attended between 2 and 54 sessions, with an average of 18 sessions. Duration of treatment with me ranged from 1 month to 38 months, with a mean of duration of 10 months. Slightly more than half of the patients (n = 11) took psychotropic medication while in treatment with me. Three patients had to be hospitalized over the course of their treatment with me.

All patients were assigned an end-of-treatment status describing how they had progressed as of their final session with me. Outcomes were defined as follows:

1. Patient must meet ALL of the following criteria to be classified as in full remission:
a.) Patient gets regular menstrual periods.
b.) Patient is medically healthy, with good vital signs and blood work.
c.) Patient is completely abstinent from eating disorder behaviors, including restricting, binge/purge behaviors, laxatives, and diet pills.
d.) Patient eats regular, balanced meals most of the time or always, as reported by patient and parent (when applicable)
e.) No more than mild preoccupation with food, weight, body image, or fear of weight gain

2. Patient is classified as in physical remission if she meets criteria a, b, c, and d under full remission, but does not meet criteria e under full remission. Essentially, a patient in physical remission is physically well and free of eating disorder behaviors, but continues to be very distressed with her body image and/or preoccupied with thoughts about food and weight.

3. Patient is classified as having made significant progress if:
a.) Patient has made significant improvement in dietary habits (e.g., eats regular, balanced meals and snacks) as reported by patient and parents (when applicable)
b.) Patient is medically healthy, with good vital signs and blood work
c.) Frequency of eating disorder behaviors (e.g., restricting, bingeing, purging) has been reduced to once per week or less.

4. Patient is classified as having made some progress if:
a.) Patient has improved dietary habits somewhat since intake, but needs more improvement
b.) Patient has reduced the frequency of eating disorder behaviors (e.g., restricting, bingeing, purging) since intake, but still engages in these behaviors more than once per week.

5. Patient is classified as having made no progress if she has not improved dietary habits and/or has not reduced the frequency of eating disorder behaviors.

6. Patient is classified as regressed if she meets ANY of the following criteria:
a.) Dietary intake has declined since intake (e.g., more skipped meals, less variety, less nutritional balance)
b.) Frequency of binge/purge behaviors has increased since intake
c.) Patient has become medically unstable

Thirty-three percent of patients (n = 7) completed treatment, 43% (n = 9) quit treatment prematurely, 19% (n = 4) were referred to other providers or treatment settings because I was unable to meet their needs, and 5% (n = 1) moved to another geographic area during treatment.

One-hundred percent of the patients who completed treatment (n = 7) reached full remission. For those who completed treatment, known henceforth as “treatment completers,” duration of treatment ranged from one month to 38 months, with an average duration of 10 months. Number of sessions attended for treatment completers ranged from 3 – 45, with an average of 15 sessions. In other words, the typical patient with BN or EDNOS who completed treatment achieved full remission in 15 sessions over the course of 10 months.

Unfortunately, the attrition rate was very high, so these treatment completers comprised only one-third of the full sample. Of the 14 patients who discontinued prematurely, 43% (n = 6) made significant progress, another 43% (n = 6) made some progress, 7% (n = 1) made no progress, and 7% regressed (n = 1).

My next post will involve a detailed examination of the differences between patients who completed treatment and reached full remission versus those who discontinued treatment prematurely and did not reach full remission.

Correlates of Treatment Outcome for Patients with Anorexia Nervosa

In my last blog post, I described the end-of-treatment outcomes of my former patients (N = 30) with Anorexia Nervosa (AN). In sum, 57% of patients completed treatment (n=17) and 43% of patients (n = 13) did not complete treatment. The former group is referred to as “treatment completers” and the latter as “treatment non-completers.”

As expected, end-of-treatment results differed dramatically between the two groups. By the end of treatment, 94% percent of treatment completers had achieved full remission and 6% (n = 1) had achieved physical remission. In contrast, none of the treatment non-completers achieved remission, although 46% of them made significant progress (n = 6).

Bear in mind that I set the bar very high for my patients in terms of defining remission. In most published studies of AN treatment outcome, the patients whom I categorized as having made significant progress would be categorized as “recovered” or “in remission.” If I used the (completely inadequate) definitions of remission that other studies have used, a full 77% of my sample would have completed treatment and made a full recovery. But I digress.

These data clearly demonstrate that my approach to treating AN is effective. Patients with AN who have completed treatment with me always achieved physical remission and almost always achieved psychological and behavioral remission as well.

The 43% attrition rate is disheartening, given that patients are likely to achieve remission if they remain in treatment long enough. Attrition is a major problem in AN treatment in general, and in AN treatment for adults in particular. The validity of most AN treatment outcome studies is compromised by the high rates of attrition. It is not surprising that many adults discontinue AN treatment prematurely, given that treatment is very difficult, anxiety provoking, and lengthy.

This raises the question of what is “long enough” in terms of AN treatment? In my opinion, “long enough” is as long as it takes to bring the patient to full remission, which varies considerably based on individual differences. Among the treatment completers, the length of time to full remission ranged from 2 months to 4 years, with a mean of 17 months. The number of sessions attended by treatment completers ranged from 3 – 82, with a mean of 28 sessions. There were a handful of the young patients who achieved full remission in 12 sessions or less, although this was not the norm.

The rates of treatment completion versus non-completion in my sample beg the question of how these two groups differed. What was it that made treatment completers stick it out until the end, while the treatment non-completers either quit or regressed to the point that they required more intensive treatment? Cause and effect cannot be determined from this type of study. However, a careful examination of the similarities and differences between treatment completers and non-completers may yield useful information and hypotheses which can be tested in future studies.

The patients who completed treatment and reached remission differed in several important ways from those who discontinued treatment prematurely.

Variables That Had a Significant Impact on Treatment Outcome:

1.) Type of Treatment

In my practice, all children and adolescents under age 18 with AN receive FBT (Family-Based Treatment, also known as the Maudsley Method). Some adolescents also receive individual therapy as an adjunct to FBT after weight restoration. Some children and adolescents transition to individual therapy with me after FBT is complete; this may be the case for those who have comorbid disorders or other ongoing issues. Patients over 18 with AN are strongly encouraged to do FBT whenever appropriate, although it is not always possible for logistical reasons, and some young adults are staunchly opposed to it. In my sample, 66.7% of patients (n = 20) received FBT alone, 16.7% (n = 5) received FBT plus individual therapy, and 16.7% (n = 5) received individual therapy alone.

In my sample, all of the patients who received individual therapy alone were 20 or older. Six of the 11 young adults in my sample (n = 55%) participated in FBT, either alone or in conjunction with individual therapy. All of the patients under age 18 received FBT, and two of these patients also received individual therapy.

One-hundred percent of treatment completers (n = 17) received FBT, either by itself (n = 15) or in conjunction with individual therapy (n = 2). In other words, all patients who achieved remission did so through FBT. One-hundred percent of the patients who did individual therapy alone (n = 5) ended treatment prematurely, either because they moved (n = 2), they quit (n = 2), or I referred them to a higher level of care (n = 1). In other words, individual therapy by itself never resulted in treatment completion or remission.

2.) Subtype of AN

This sample contained 5 patients with the Binge-Purge subtype of AN (AN – BP) and 25 patients with the Restricting subtype of AN (AN – R). One-hundred percent of treatment completers had a diagnosis of AN-R. None of the AN-BP patients completed treatment.

Among the AN-BP patients, 2 were referred to higher levels of care after regressing during treatment with me. One patient moved to another state after making some progress in treatment with me. Two patients quit treatment prematurely after making significant progress with me.

The patients in my sample with AN-BP were more likely to have a history of impulsivity, self-injury, and suicidal gestures compared to those with AN-R. I hypothesize that this cluster of symptoms made these patients more difficult for me to treat effectively as an outpatient solo practitioner, and more likely to benefit from a more structured, comprehensive treatment approach such as day treatment or residential treatment.

3.) Age

On average, those who completed treatment and achieved remission were significantly younger at intake than those who did not complete treatment (p <.01). Treatment completers ranged in age from 10 – 24 at intake, with a median age of 14. Treatment non-completers ranged in age from 10 – 37, with a median age of 20. However, it is important to note that there was a broad range of ages in both groups, with some young adults achieving full remission and some children and adolescents discontinuing treatment prematurely. 4.) Fee Paid for Services I believe that neither finances nor insurance issues should prevent people from accessing high-quality healthcare services. Therefore, I do not participate on any insurance panels. I am flexible with my fees and I work on a sliding scale based on a patient's ability to pay. If a family’s financial status changes during the course of treatment, I will change my fee for them accordingly. I work with many patients for very low hourly fees. Thus, I can only assume that the patients who discontinued treatment prematurely did not do so for financial reasons. Among the patients in this AN sample, 87% (n = 26) paid my full fee and 13% (n = 4) paid a reduced rate. The rate of reduced-pay patients in this sample is significantly lower than in my other diagnostic groups. I hypothesize that this may be due to the fact that the majority of patients in this sample received family-based treatment and had at least one parent who was a working professional, or who at least was employed full-time. In contrast, many of my patients with other diagnoses were college students supporting themselves, who were therefore eligible for a low fee. In this sample of AN patients, those who paid a reduced rate were significantly less likely to complete treatment compared to those who paid a full rate. Only 25% of reduced fee patients (n = 1) completed treatment, versus 62% of full fee patients (n = 16). It is unclear why reduced rate patients were less likely to complete treatment. However, the reduced rate patients differed from the full rate patients in several important ways. First, and most obviously, they had lower incomes, and likely dealt with the host of stressors that accompany being of lower socio-economic status. Second, they were all over the age of 18, which statistically reduces their likelihood of full recovery. Third, they were more likely to receive individual therapy than the full-rate patients. All of the low-rate patients received individual therapy, either alone (n = 2) or in combination with FBT (n = 2). Observing my patients with other diagnoses, I have noticed that those who pay full rate are much more likely to attend all of their sessions and to complete treatment, whereas those who pay lower rates are more likely to cancel sessions, no-show for sessions, and drop out prematurely. While I’m sure that the reasons for these differences are complex, I can’t help but wonder if people who pay more for something tend to value it more and take it more seriously. Variables That Had a Minor Impact on Treatment Outcome:

1.) Length of illness before intake.

Among treatment completers, length of illness before intake ranged from 3 months to 13 years (mean = 27 months). Amongst treatment non-completers, length of illness before intake ranged from 3 months to 21 years (mean = 67 months). However, this difference was not statistically significant (t = 1.63; p = 0.11).

2.) Use of Medication During Treatment

Individuals who took psychotropic medication during treatment with me were somewhat more likely to complete treatment and achieve remission. Fifty-nine percent of treatment completers (n = 10) took medication during treatment, compared with 38% of treatment non-completers (n = 5).

3.) Ethnicity

This sample of 30 patients was comprised of 60% White Non-Hispanic individuals (n = 18) and 40% White Hispanic Individuals (n = 12). These percentages are roughly similar to the ethnic makeup of Coral Gables, Florida, the Miami Suburb in which my office is located. The treatment completers group was comprised of 71% White Non-Hispanic individuals (n = 12) and 29% White Hispanic individuals (n = 5). The treatment non-completers group included 46% White Non-Hispanics (n = 6) and 54% White Hispanics (n = 7). Therefore, White Non-Hispanics were slightly more likely to complete treatment and achieve full recovery than White Hispanics.

4.) History of intensive eating disorder treatment.

History of residential, day treatment, or intensive outpatient treatment had a minor impact on treatment outcome. Twelve percent of treatment completers (n = 2) and 23% of treatment non-completers (n = 3) had a history of residential eating disorders treatment prior to beginning treatment with me. Twenty-four percent of treatment completers (n = 4) and 31% of treatment non-completers had a history of partial hospitalization, day treatment, or intensive outpatient eating disorder treatment.

Variables that Had No Impact on Treatment Outcome:

1.) Comorbid disorders

The presence of comorbid disorders did not differ significantly between the two groups. Fifty-three percent of treatment completers (n = 9) had a comorbid diagnosis, as did 46% of treatment non-completers.

2.) Gender.

Given that only 7% of the sample was male (n = 2), I cannot draw any conclusions about gender differences in treatment response. Incidentally, both of the males in my sample achieved full recovery.

3.) Hospitalization before treatment.

Being hospitalized for AN or a related psychiatric issue prior to beginning treatment with me did not have a significant impact on treatment outcome. Thirty-five percent of treatment completers (n = 6) had been hospitalized at least one prior to beginning treatment with me, as had 31% percent of treatment non-completers (n = 4).

4.) Hospitalization during treatment.

The need for hospitalization during the course of treatment with me did not have a significant impact on treatment outcome. Eighteen percent of treatment completers (n = 3) needed to be hospitalized during the course of their treatment, compared with 15% (n = 2) of treatment non-completers.

These data, taken together, suggest that a patient with AN-R who enters treatment with me and receives FBT is very likely to achieve full remission within 28 sessions over the course of 17 months, regardless of gender, comorbid diagnosis, or history of hospitalization. A patient under age 18 has a greater likelihood of achieving full remission, although a patient over 18 is also likely to achieve full remission, provided that he or she is treated with FBT.

Please bear in mind that these results are specific to my practice and my patients. These data are not intended to be generalized to other clinicians or other patient populations.

End of Treatment Outcomes for Patients with Anorexia Nervosa

Since opening my practice in 2009, I have evaluated 49 patients with primary diagnoses of Anorexia Nervosa (AN). All patients who attended an evaluation and at least one treatment session with me, and who are no longer in treatment with me, were included in this sample. In addition, there were several patients who have completed their treatment but have elected to see me two or three times per year for check-ins; these patients were included in this sample as well. Patients who are currently in treatment with me were not included. Patients who saw me for an evaluation and / or consultation only, but did not attend any treatment sessions, were not included either. Thirty patients met criteria for inclusion in this sample. The remaining 19 did not meet criteria, either because they saw me for evaluation and consultation only or because they are currently in treatment with me.

Please bear in mind that this is not a randomized, controlled study. The results I am posting are specific to my practice and my patients. They are not intended to be generalized to other clinicians or other patients. While many of my patients are referred to me by their pediatrician or psychiatrist, the majority of my patients are self-selecting. That is, their families researched their treatment options on their and chose to work with me for a specific reason. The self-selecting nature of many of these families also limits the generalizability of the results.

The sample described in this post contains 30 patients. These patients ranged in age from 10 – 37 (median age = 15). Eighty-three percent of these patients (n = 25) met criteria for restricting subtype (AN-R) and the remaining 17% (n = 5) met criteria for binge-purge subtype (AN-BP). Half of these patients (n = 15) had a co-morbid diagnosis, with the most common being Major Depressive Disorder and Depressive Disorder Not Otherwise Specified. Fifty-three percent of patients (n = 16) took some type of psychotropic medication during their treatment with me.

The patients varied widely in terms of length of illness and severity of symptoms. Duration of illness before intake ranged from 3 months to 21 years (median duration = 19 months). Importantly, these figures reflect the duration since the onset of illness, which is typically longer (and often much longer) than the duration since diagnosis. For the purpose of calculating duration of illness, onset of illness was defined as the period of time in which patient began engaging in behavioral symptoms of AN (e.g., restricting, compulsive exercise, purging) as reported by the patient and/or parents.

The majority of these patients arrived at my office with some history of treatment. Seventy percent of patients (n = 21) had already received some type of treatment before beginning therapy with me. As expected, most of those who were new to treatment had a much shorter duration of illness. One-third of patients (n = 10) had been hospitalized for their eating disorder or a related psychiatric issue (e.g., suicide attempt) prior to their evaluation with me. Seventeen percent of the patients (n = 5) had previously been in residential treatment and 27% (n = 8) had previously been in partial hospitalization, day treatment, or intensive outpatient treatment eating disorder treatment.

Duration of treatment with me ranged from one week to 48 months (median duration of treatment = 11 months). Number of treatment sessions with me ranged from 1 – 82. For those whose treatment lasted 18 months or longer, the duration of treatment can be explained by either a relapse after a period of remission or continued treatment to address a comorbid condition, such as anxiety or depression. Seventeen percent of patients (n = 5) had to be hospitalized during their treatment with me.

Prior to reporting end-of-treatment outcomes, it is important to clarify how I defined outcomes. I created the following definitions, each with specific criteria, in order to categorize patient outcomes:

1. Patient must meet ALL of the following criteria to be classified as in full remission:
a.) Patient is 100% weight-restored. Target weights were calculated based on patient’s individual historic growth chart and parent input. Patients under age 20 were expected to return to their historic percentiles for height, weight, and BMI. For patients age 20 and up, target weights were calculated based on the patient’s height, body build, weight history, menstrual history, and parental input (when available).
b.) Patient has started or resumed menstrual periods (for females ages 14 +).
c.) Patient is medically healthy.
d.) Complete abstinence from binge/purge behaviors, laxatives, and diet pills.
e.) Patient eats regular, balanced meals most of the time or always , as reported by patient and parent (when applicable)
f.) For children under 18 – child eats independently in an age-appropriate way most of the time or all of the time. For patients ages 18 and up, patient is able to eat independently while maintaining his/her weight.
g.) No more than mild preoccupation with food, weight, body image, or fear of weight gain

2. Patient is classified as in physical remission if he/she meets criteria a, b, c, d, and e under full remission, but does not meet criteria f or g under full remission. Essentially, a patient in physical remission is physically well and free of eating disorder behaviors, but cannot eat well independently, and/or continues to be preoccupied with thoughts about food, weight, and body image.

3. Patient is classified as having made significant progress if:
a.) Patient has made significant improvement in dietary habits (e.g., eats regular, balanced meals and snacks and has expanded the variety of foods he/she eats) as reported by patient and parents (when applicable)
b.) Patient has restored some weight and is at least 90% of ideal body weight (as defined in criterion a under full remission)
c.) Patient is medically healthy
d.) If patient has a history of bingeing, purging, laxatives, or diet pills, the frequency of these behaviors has been reduced to once per week or less.

4. Patient is classified as having made some progress if:
a.) Patient has improved dietary habits since intake, but needs more improvement
b.) Patient has restored some weight but remains more than 10% below target weight (as defined in criterion a under physical remission).
c.) Patient is a female age 14 or older but is not menstruating
d.) If patient has a history of bingeing, purging, laxatives, or diet pills, he/she has reduced the frequency of these behaviors since intake but still engages in them more than once per week.

5. Patient is classified as having made no progress if he/she has not improved dietary habits, has not restored any weight, and/or has not reduced the frequency of bingeing or compensatory behaviors.

6. Patient is classified as regressed if he/she meets ANY of the following criteria:
a.) Patient has lost weight since starting treatment
b.) Patient has been eating less since intake (in terms of frequency, quantity, and variety)
c.) Frequency of bingeing or compensatory behaviors has increased since intake
d.) Patient has become medically unstable

Fifty-seven percent of patients (n = 17) completed treatment and will be referred to as “treatment completers.” Treatment completers ranged in age from 10 – 24 at intake, with a median age of 14. Duration of treatment for treatment completers ranged from 2 months to 48 months (median duration = 15.5 months).

Ninety-four percent of treatment completers (n = 16) met criteria for full remission at end of treatment. The remaining 6% (n = 1) met criteria for physical remission at end of treatment. For the treatment completers, weight restoration was achieved in an average of 3 months (range = 1 – 7 months). Two of the treatment completers were fully weight-restored (though not in full remission) at the start of treatment with me, having already been in eating disorder treatment elsewhere.

Forty-three percent of patients (n = 13) did not complete treatment and will be referred to as “treatment non-completers.” Treatment non-completers ranged in age from 10 – 37, with a median age of 20. Duration of treatment for the non-completers ranged from one week to six months (median duration = 3 months). Of the treatment non-completers, I referred 23% (n = 3) to other providers because they required something I could not provide (e.g., residential treatment) or my treatment approach was not helping them. Fifteen percent of non-completers (n = 2) moved to other parts of the country during their treatment and thus were referred to other providers near their new homes. Sixty-two percent of treatment non-completers (n = 8) dropped out of treatment prematurely.

Of the treatment non-completers, 46% (n = 6) had made significant progress by their last session with me. Fifteen percent had made some progress, 23% (n = 3) had made no progress, and 15% (n = 2) had regressed.

Stay tuned for my next blog post, in which I will examine and interpret the differences between treatment completers and treatment non-completers.

A Seat at the Table: Understanding and Helping the Siblings of Eating Disorder Patients

I feel honored to serve on the Professional Advisory Panel for FEAST, a nonprofit organization which provides support and information to the parents and families of people with eating disorders. Last weekend, I had the privilege of presenting at the second annual FEAST conference in Alexandria, VA. I spoke to a group of parents about understanding and helping their other children while also caring for their eating disordered child. Below are some of the major points from my presentation.

Eating disorders can impact the patient’s siblings from various angles:

• Through their parents. When a child is ill with an eating disorder, her siblings often receive less attention from their parents. The parents may be physically absent from the home, traveling to faraway treatment centers and attending many different appointments locally. Parents often feel worried, stressed, and irritable, and these emotions can easily spill over into their relationships with their other children.

• By impacting family life. Family meals with an eating disordered person can be tense or explosive. For this reason, siblings may begin to dread family meals or avoid them altogether. Family trips may be cancelled or ruined by the eating disorder. The financial burden of ED treatment impacts the entire family, including siblings.

• Through their social environment. Parents may not be available to drive siblings to their lessons, sports events, and social activities when they are spending long hours preparing and supervising meals and driving the ill sibling to appointments. Siblings may feel embarrassed to invite friends over when their ill sister or brother is acting particularly bizarre. Siblings may have to deal with gossip from friends and neighbors. They may feel conflicted about telling their friends about their family’s situation, and they have to deal with the stigma of mental illness.

• Through the change in eating habits. Parents are encouraged to serve their anorexic children high-calorie foods to restore their weight. Sometimes siblings over-indulge in these foods and gain unneeded weight.

• Through their genes. Biological siblings of eating disorder patients are 10 times more likely to develop an eating disorder compared to the general population. Additionally, siblings of eating disorder patients may inherit genes that predispose them to other psychiatric illnesses, including depression, OCD and other anxiety disorders, substance abuse, ADHD, and autism.

Brothers and sisters may experience a variety of emotions while their sibling is ill with an eating disorder. They may worry that their sibling will get sicker or die. They may grieve for the loss of their sibling’s true personality while she is consumed by the illness, and they may miss her terribly if she is away from home for a lengthy hospitalization or residential treatment stay. They may worry about their own risk for developing an eating disorder. They may feel angry at their sibling for putting the family through hell or making mealtimes miserable. They may feel jealous because of all of the attention their ill sibling is getting. Siblings may react by withdrawing from friends and family members, having difficulty at school, or acting out. They may feel sad or hopeless. They may have difficulty concentrating. Very young siblings may manifest their distress through physical symptoms (e.g., tummy aches, trouble sleeping).

It may not be possible for parents to shield siblings completely from the impact of the eating disorder. However, there are some steps that parents can take to minimize the damage and help siblings cope:

• Immediately upon diagnosis, provide siblings with age-appropriate information on their sibling’s diagnosis, symptoms, and treatment. Explain that the disorder is biologically-based and that the child did not chose to have it. I have a Sibling reading list, as well as a list of Q & A for siblings of AN patients. Even preschool-age siblings can understand a few basic points: “Your sister has a disease in her brain called anorexia which has made her very sick. She is acting different because of her sick brain; it is not her fault. We need to help her get better. Mommy and Daddy will be very busy taking care of her, but we still love you very much.”

• Be frank with siblings about the seriousness of the eating disorder, including the possibility of death. This honesty helps siblings understand why it is so important that the family intervenes immediately and aggressively, and why other activities have to take a back seat for now.

• Be honest with siblings about the reality of dealing with the eating disorder. Acknowledge that, for a period of time, the whole family will be under stress, family life will change, and you may not be able to spend as much time with them.

• Bring siblings to some Family-Based Treatment (FBT) sessions so that the therapist can explain the eating disorder to them, describe the treatment process, answer their questions, and tell them how they can support their ill sister or brother.

• Make a point of scheduling one-on-one time with each sibling and talking with them about their lives apart from the eating disorder.

• Talk with siblings about their feelings and reactions to the eating disorder. Let them know that it is totally normal and understandable for siblings to feel worried, angry, jealous, resentful, or sad in this type of situation.

• Ensure that siblings remain in a support role, rather than taking on a parent’s role. Lock and LeGrange, authors of the FBT manual, call this process “maintaining intergenerational boundaries.” Siblings can help their ill sister by providing her with distraction before, during, and after meals, by being good listeners and providing empathy, and by engaging her in normal sibling activities. Siblings can help by taking over kitchen chores that the eating disordered person is not well enough to do, such as setting the table or doing the dishes. Do not involve siblings in the actual process of re-feeding or supervising meals, as this can put them in a delicate position of being torn between “loyalty” to their ill sister and the responsibility of reporting ED behaviors to their parents.

An eating disorder can also impact siblings in a positive way. For example, they may grow closer to their ill sibling and value her more after almost losing her. They may feel needed and important in the process of supporting their ill sister or brother. Siblings may become more aware of EDs and other psychiatric illnesses in their friends and try to intervene whenever they see concerning behaviors. They may have improved body image after witnessing the disturbing body image distress of their ill sibling. Often, siblings benefit from having more frequent family meals and structured eating habits. They may grow and mature from the experience, developing more autonomy when parents’ focus is on the eating disorder treatment. Siblings benefit from strengthened parental unity. If a sibling develops an eating disorder or another illness in the future, their parents tend to intervene immediately and are much more equipped to deal with it.

Navigating Phase III

Last week, I blogged about navigating Phase II of Maudsley Family-Based Treatment (FBT). Today I present a roadmap for Phase III, which is equal to Phase II in its importance as well as its ambiguity.

A common but ill-informed criticism of FBT is that it only addresses eating and weight. This is a misconception. Phase I focuses on establishing normal eating habits and restoring normal weight and Phase II focuses on helping the patient eat on her own in an age-appropriate way, but Phase III has nothing to do with food or weight at all. A wonderful thing about FBT is that the life-threatening eating disordered behaviors are treated first, which frees up the therapist, the patient, and the family to focus on any remaining issues in Phase III.

The goal of Phase III is establishing a healthy adolescent identity. An eating disorder engulfs an adolescent’s identity, creates extreme stress for the entire family, and strains the relationships between family members. Phase III is about restoring healthy, age-appropriate family relationships and returning the adolescent to normal life. Anything that stands in the way of these goals must be dealt with in order for the patient to recover fully.

Phase III begins when the patient is able to eat normally, with age-appropriate independence, while maintaining a healthy weight and not engaging in any eating disorder behaviors. Essentially, once all food issues have been resolved, the patient is ready for Phase III.

The authors of the FBT manual (Locke & Le Grange, 2001) advise that Phase III entails a handful of sessions scheduled several weeks apart. In my clinical experience, many patients do quite well with just a few sessions in Phase III, but others continue to struggle with anxiety, depression, body image, perfectionism, or other problems. Therefore, I offer to provide patients and families with an extended version of Phase III when I believe it is warranted. Length of illness, severity of illness, and co-morbid conditions all influence whether a patient may benefit from more treatment than the FBT manual prescribes.

In my practice, Phase III typically addresses the following issues:

1.) Returning the patient to normal development.

An eating disorder can interrupt normal adolescent development. Often, when a patient enters Phase III, she is at the same developmental level as when the illness first began. Phase III entails helping the patient develop the maturity and social-emotional skills that were lost as a casualty of ED. Depending on the age of the patient, this may entail returning to sports or other activities, getting a driver’s license, going out with friends, dating, returning to college, or developing new hobbies and interests.

2.) Re-establishing healthy relationships amongst family members.

An eating disorder can wreak havoc on family life. It is not uncommon for spouses to have major marital conflict emerge as a result of ED. Siblings may feel neglected by their parents or jealous of the patient. The patient and her parents may develop a codependent relationship over the course of treatment, which can be advantageous in the first two phases, but must be corrected in Phase III so that the patient and parent can each return to their own lives. Healthy boundaries amongst family members can be damaged by ED, and it is crucial for these boundaries to be re-established at the end of treatment.

3.) Addressing any remaining psychological symptoms of the eating disorder.

There are numerous psychological symptoms related to an eating disorder. For example, body dysmorphia, perfectionism, poor self-esteem, anxiety, and cognitive rigidity may predispose people to AN and perpetuate the illness once it has begun. For many patients, these symptoms abate or resolve on their own during the first two phases. For many others, however, targeted treatment is needed at this phase. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) can be helpful in this regard.

4.) Working through the trauma of experiencing an eating disorder.

While many treatment programs address traumatic experiences that precipitated an eating disorder, few acknowledge that the experience of having eating disorder is itself very traumatic. Caring for a child with an eating disorder can be almost as traumatic as experiencing one. In many cases, the patient or her parents (or both) experience post-traumatic stress reactions at this point, such as disturbing nightmares, intrusive memories, and avoidance of stimuli associated with the eating disorder.

It is not uncommon for parents, drained and burnt out from the exhausting work of Phase I and Phase II, to have their own breakdowns at this point. Their child is well enough that they are no longer operating in crisis mode and they have some room to breathe. Once the survival instinct is no longer employed on a constant basis, parents have permission to experience their own reactions. Some parents fall into a depression; others feel disillusioned and cynical; still others suffer from extreme anxiety or lash out in anger. These are all normal, expected reactions to the trauma of almost losing a child. It is important for parents to get their own therapeutic support at this juncture if needed.

5.) Addressing grief.

Another often neglected aspect of eating disorder treatment is grieving what the eating disorder has taken. Not all patients and families experience this grief, but some do. I believe that when there is grief associated with the eating disorder, it should be discussed openly and addressed as part of the healing process. Patients often lose friends to their illness. They may have to take a hiatus from their favorite sport, or give it up altogether. Some patients miss a semester of school. Most are isolated from society for some time. At this stage, patients can feel the pain and injustice of losing a piece of their youth irretrievably.

Some parents may mourn the loss of their child’s innocence. They mourn the loss of life as they knew it. Many parents take time off from work and become isolated from their social circle as they help their child recover. Some parents mourn the loss of dreams they once had for their child which have been thwarted by ED.

No one emerges from the hell of an eating disorder unscathed. That said, some people are able to close that chapter in their lives and move forward, whereas others remain trapped by anger, sadness, or bitterness. It is important for patients and parents to work through their grief so that they can move forward in a life unencumbered by ED.

6.) Relapse prevention.

It is important for the patient and her parents to be aware of possible signs of impending relapse and to know what to do if these signs emerge. I find it very useful to discharge patients with a written relapse prevention plan which I have developed in collaboration with the patient and family.

7.) Evaluating the patient for co-morbid conditions.

Many patients with eating disorders experience co-morbid psychiatric conditions. Patients who continue to struggle with emotional or behavioral problems after the eating disorder has been resolved should be evaluated to determine whether they suffer from a comorbid disorder. The most common comorbid disorders are the anxiety disorders (including OCD, generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, PTSD, and social anxiety disorder), followed closely by mood disorders (depression and bipolar disorder). Other comorbid conditions may include autism spectrum disorders (such as Asperger’s), ADHD, substance abuse, and personality disorders.

8.) Getting the patient appropriate treatment for co-morbid conditions.

If the patient does indeed suffer from a co-morbid condition, it is important for her to get treatment for it. Treatment for a co-morbid disorder may include individual therapy, psychotropic medication, or a combination thereof. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) in particular has been found to help many people recover from anxiety disorders, mood disorders, and numerous other conditions.

Navigating Phase II

There is a common misconception that Maudsley Family-Based Treatment (FBT) is all about parental control of feeding. While Phase I of FBT does require parents to take control of their ill child’s food intake to help her restore her weight, FBT also encompasses two other very important phases. In Phase II, parents return control over eating to their child as she demonstrates readiness to eat on her own. Phase III involves helping the adolescent return to normal development and establish a healthy identity.

Weight restoration is an essential first step in overcoming AN, but it is only the first step. Equally important is the ability to feed oneself properly and maintain a healthy weight independently. Without the ability to eat independently, opportunities are limited and quality of life is greatly diminished. Recovery from an eating disorder is about more than just restoring a healthy body – it is also about restoring a healthy mind and a fulfilling life.

Phase I tends to be the most tumultuous and draining for the family and the most agonizing for the patient, but the task at hand is very straight-forward: eat more and gain weight.

Phase II, however, is much more ambiguous. Parents and clinicians struggle to determine when a patient is ready to begin Phase II. The patient herself may send mixed signals – she may beg for the freedom to eat lunch in the school cafeteria and go out to dinner with her friends, but yet she is clearly unable to take a single bite of food that isn’t “required” and “supervised.” To outsiders, the patient seems normal – she looks healthy, she acts more or less like a typical teenager (in between mealtimes, at least), but appearances belie the still-raging battle in her head. Still tormented by the anorexic thoughts and compulsions, she feels torn between a wish to return to the safety of emaciation and a desire to dive headlong into the normal life she has been missing.

I use the following benchmarks to help families determine when their child is ready to enter Phase II:

• The patient has been fully weight restored to his/her historic growth curve (per pediatric growth chart percentiles) for at least a few weeks. While the FBT manual (Locke & Le Grange, 2001) recommends beginning Phase II when the patient is at 90% of her ideal body weight, I have found that the vast majority of patients are not ready for any control over their food intake until they achieve 100% of their ideal body weight. In my experience, many patients need to maintain their ideal body weight for a number of months before they are ready to enter Phase II.

• The patient’s metabolism has normalized to the point that she no longer requires a very high-calorie diet. It is hard enough for the patient to feed herself a normal meal – don’t make it even harder by expecting her to serve herself very high calorie meals.

• The patient is no longer engaging in eating disorder behaviors such as restricting, bingeing, purging, or excessive exercise.

• The patient is eating all of the food her parents provide her, in a reasonable amount of time, without much fear or resistance. [NOTE: the patient will still have some anxiety around eating at this point – that is to be expected. The point is that the patient needs to be able to push through that anxiety and eat what she needs without a struggle.]

• The family is no longer operating in “crisis mode.” The parents feel confident that they can help their child defeat the eating disorder, and the child has accepted that her parents have taken charge.

• The patient expresses readiness to assume some control over her eating and confidence that she can feed herself appropriately. [NOTE: Many patients express a desire to regain control over their eating long before they are actually ready. This premature push for independence may be partially motivated by a normal adolescent drive for freedom, but it may also be motivated by ED’s desire to restrict and lose weight. Therefore, it is a mistake to use the child’s expressed readiness as the sole criteria for entering Phase II. Rather, you want to look for the child’s expressed readiness in addition to the previous criteria.]

Here are some general principles I discuss with families to help them navigate the uneasy waters of Phase II:

• Have a vision.

I like to begin Phase II with a vision of how the patient’s life will look at the end of Phase II. By the end of Phase II, the patient needs to be able eat on her own while maintaining her weight, in an age appropriate way, in the context of her family and her normal life. All patients, regardless of age, will enter Phase II eating in the same way – with parents in control of what, when, and how much they are eating. However, the end goal of Phase II is different for a 10-year-old than for a 16-year-old or a 22-year-old. A good frame of reference in creating your vision for Phase II is to look at the amount of autonomy the patient’s friends have with regards to their eating.

For example, by the end of Phase II, a pre-teen patient should be able to eat lunch with her friends in the cafeteria at school, order from a restaurant menu, select her own after-school snack and eat it without supervision. She should be able to have a few meals and snacks at a friend’s house during a sleep-over, or spend the day away from her parents on a field trip. She should still share meals with her family each day and eat what the family is eating.

By the end of Phase II, a high-school age patient should be able to prepare a simple breakfast and lunch for herself when needed, serve herself appropriate portions at dinner, eat a meal on occasion without her parents present (for example, dinner on her own if her parents are out for the evening), and go out to eat with friends. Regular family meals are still important for teenagers so that parents can keep an eye on their child’s eating behavior, even when the teen is eating many of her meals and snacks on her own. A young adult patient who is preparing for independent living should be able to plan her menu, shop for groceries, cook for herself, and eat without parental supervision.

• Take baby steps, go very slowly, and accept that this Phase will take a long time.

In my experience, Phase II usually takes somewhere between 3-12 months, depending on the severity of illness and other individual differences.

• Accept and embrace the fact that Phase II poses an inherent risk.

Like many things in life, giving a recovering anorexic more control over her food intake involves some degree of risk. It is likely that the patient will experience struggles and setbacks during Phase II. Try to learn and grow from these slips, and help her do the same. Keep in mind that you can, to some degree, manage the amount of risk involved by ensuring that the patient is genuinely ready before starting Phase II, monitoring her closely over the course of this phase, and stepping in to help her when needed. I liken this process to helping a baby learn to walk. You wait until she is confident in her crawling. Of course she will stumble and fall, but she will grow stronger each time she pulls herself back up. And you can provide her with a soft, carpeted surface on which to practice her steps.

• Have the patient practice choosing and preparing her food under supervision before she is permitted to eat unsupervised.

I typically start Phase II by having the patient choose and prepare one snack each day under parental supervision. The parents observe the child’s food selection and gently guide her in the right direction if needed. For example, let’s say the child chooses crackers with peanut butter and puts 4 crackers with a thin coating of peanut butter on each one. The parent may say: “That’s an excellent, balanced choice, but it’s not quite enough nutrition. Let’s put three more crackers on the plate and add more peanut butter.”

I usually require a patient to have at least a week of consistent success preparing a meal/snack under supervision before moving on to the next meal/snack.

• Be systematic.

I typically coach patients to proceed through Phase II by giving back control of one meal or snack at a time and allowing the child to gain mastery of each meal/snack before moving on to the next one. For example, the child may begin Phase II by assuming control of her own after-school snack, while parents maintain control of all other meals and snacks.

• Assess progress regularly.

The patient should be weighed weekly during this phase, and family members should keep tabs on her mental state and behavior daily. If she is maintaining her weight within her healthy range, and her mood and behavior around food are good, then it is time to move forward to more independence. If her weight drops, or if she demonstrates an increase in eating disorder behaviors (even in the absence of weight loss), then it is time for parents to take back more control of her food intake.

• Take back control when necessary.

Nearly every patient has a few setbacks during this Phase. It is the parents’ responsibility, with the guidance of their clinician, to take back more control over the patient’s food when she has not been able to manage eating on her own. The step backwards is a temporary measure to help her get back on track, and she will regain control when she demonstrates readiness.

• Some patients need a gentle nudge to move forward.

While many patients are all too eager to take back control over their food intake, some become overly dependent on their parents to feed them and have great difficulty moving forward. This makes sense in light of the nature of AN – being fed by your parents is a passive process which does not involve taking personal responsibility. The “ED voice” quiets down after several months of full nutrition, and the patient is able to eat well without too much guilt when she is being “forced.” The acts of preparing one’s own food, deciding what to order from a restaurant menu, or choosing whether to have a snack when no one is watching – these are all acts of defiance against the “ED voice.” Patients are flooded with anxiety, indecisiveness, and guilt when the time comes to make these choices. It is a scary step for parents and patients alike. Some patients require lots of encouragement to become more independent with their eating. I find that it is often helpful to remind the patient of the benefits of being able to eat independently, such as spending more time with friends and doing other activities away from home. Some younger patients respond well to concrete, short-term rewards for eating independently. For example, a 6th grader who successfully manages her afternoon snack every day for a week without weight loss may be rewarded with a trip to the movies.

• Be realistic.

Many parents lament that their recovering child no longer goes out for ice cream on a whim or breezes into the kitchen to grab a few cookies or gives herself generous second helpings of her favorite meals. I advise parents that it is unrealistic to expect a recovering anorexic to eat freely or spontaneously. Some people who have recovered from AN are eventually able to eat intuitively, but not until they have been well for at least a year or two.

• Don’t force Phase II into an external timeline.

Don’t rush through this phase just so that the patient can eat lunch with her friends when the school year starts go away to college at the same time as all of her friends. The only timeline that matters is the patient’s recovery timeline, which may or may not be convenient for her (or you). Each person’s recovery moves forward at a different pace.

• Remember that whatever happens is simply feedback, not failure.

Keep in mind that the patient will probably struggle quite a bit at first. Re-learning how to feed oneself properly after a bout of AN is a very difficult task. If a patient is not able to take charge of a meal or snack, that says nothing about her character or her effort or her prognosis for recovery. It simply means that she is not ready for that step yet. Expect the patient to make mistakes, and be there to help her correct them without blame or judgment. Remember that she is doing the best she can.

• Keep things in perspective.

As challenging as Phase II can be, don’t lose sight of how far the patient has come. She is eating well, she is at a healthy weight, she is medically stable, and she is in effective treatment. In the long run, it doesn’t matter whether someone breezes through Phase II or whether it takes over a year – she’s safe, she’s physically healthy, and she will recover eventually.

Show Me The Science

The debate over evidence-based practice (also known as empirically-supported treatment) in psychology is contentious and polarizing. Evidence-based practice, as defined by the APA, is “the integration of the best available research with clinical expertise in the context of patient characteristics, culture and preferences.” The debate over evidence-based practice can be summarized as follows:

Proponents of evidence-based treatment argue that clinical psychologists are scientists, that psychotherapy is (or should be) based upon scientific theory, and therefore therapists must use the best available scientific evidence in their practice of psychotherapy. They argue that the public must be protected from therapies which are not evidence-based, as such therapies may be ineffective or harmful.

Opponents of the evidence-based practice movement argue that psychotherapy is an art rather than a science, and that the essence of what they do – the “human element” – cannot possibly be manualized or subjected to clinical trials. Opponents are typically therapists who practice relationship- or insight-oriented approaches. They see their work as diametrically opposed to the principals of evidence-based practice.

I understand and appreciate the arguments of the opponents, and I do believe they have some valid points. However, I have established my professional identity as a strong proponent of evidence-based treatment.

When you visit a physician for an illness and she prescribes a medication, you can safely assume that the medication has been FDA-approved for your particular illness, that it is likely to be effective, and that it is unlikely to seriously harm you.

Imagine the following scenario: Drug A was used to treat Illness X twenty years ago. Then, ten years ago, clinical studies showed that Drug B is significantly more effective than Drug A in treating illness X. A physician, Dr. Dolittle, continues to prescribe Drug A for Illness X because he really believes it works, and because he was taught that Drug A works well when he was a medical student 20 years ago. Dr. Dolittle does not inform his patients that Drug B exists, because he doesn’t believe it will work for them and he has no experience with it.

The scenario described above would not happen in medicine, would it? And if it did happen, Dr. Dolittle would be reprimanded by the medical board and may have his license revoked.

Believe it or not, this scenario happens in psychology all the time. Most people outside the field would be shocked to learn that the majority of psychological treatment out there is NOT evidence-based.

I have seen patients who underwent years of psychodynamic therapy for severe depression, without getting any better, without being told about cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and without being referred to a psychiatrist for a medication evaluation. I have seen patients with anxiety disorders whose psychiatrists have prescribed multiple medications for them, never once referring them for psychological treatment, without ever mentioning that CBT at least as effective, if not more so, than medication for most anxiety disorders. I have seen patients who suffered from eating disorders for many years, who have seen many therapists, who have had multiple stints in residential treatment and have taken numerous medications, but were never restored to their ideal body weight and never provided with the support they needed to eat properly. And finally, a substantial portion of my case load is comprised of teenagers with eating disorders who have experienced months or years of ineffective, non-evidence-based treatment. The families of these teenagers were never informed about Family-Based Treatment (FBT), which is the only empirically-supported treatment for adolescents with eating disorders. Their parents discovered FBT on their own through desperate late-night internet searches.

These patients are pleasantly surprised to see how quickly and dramatically they improve with evidence-based treatment. They are also angry that they were not provided with, or at least informed about, effective treatment from the start. I believe that all patients and their families deserve to be fully informed about the range of different treatment options available to them, including evidence-based treatment. I do believe that there is a place for non-evidence based treatment, but patients and families should know from the outset what they are getting.

Evidence-based practice is not about using treatment manuals verbatim, or only relying upon randomized clinical trials. Treatment manuals are necessary for research and dissemination, but they are not intended to be followed verbatim with every patient in the real world. Manuals don’t treat patients – they merely provide a guide and a plan of action which may be revised and altered as needed for each unique patient. The basic principles and techniques of the treatment are the brick and mortar; the details of each room can and should be tailored to the individual.

Clinical psychology is a science, but it is not as precise as the so-called “hard sciences” like physics or mathematics. The brain is too intricate; human behavior too complex to be boiled down to immutable formulas. There is, and always will be, room for intuition, creativity, spontaneity, and that intangible “human element” that cannot be manualized or subjected to laboratory research. But the evidence base is there, so we owe it to our patients and to our profession to use it. Otherwise, we are no better than Dr. Dolittle.

Red Flags: How to Spot Ineffective Eating Disorder Treatment

I have blogged before about how to choose a good therapist. In this post, I will approach the therapist selection / retention issue from the opposite side – how to spot a bad therapist. Please note that many bad therapists are very good people with good intentions. People do not become therapists for money, fame, or the recognition – most of them genuinely care about people and want to help them. By “bad therapist” I mean “ineffective therapist.”

It seems that there are quite a few ineffective therapists who treat eating disorders (ED’s), and this is particularly dangerous given that EDs have such a high mortality rate and are associated with many medical and psychiatric complications.

I have had the privilege of working with many ED patients and families who have received ineffective or actively harmful treatment in the past. In talking with these patients and families about their prior treatment experiences, I have come to recognize many red flags that are very commonly associated with ineffective or harmful ED treatment.

Red Flags re: Etiology
1.) The professional informs the patient or family that the ED is “not about the food.”
2.) The professional informs the patient or family that the ED “is about control.”
3.) The professional is not knowledgeable about recent science regarding the etiology of EDs.
4.) The professional emphasizes psychosocial “causes” of EDs (e.g., family dynamics, societal pressures, identity issues) while ignoring, discounting, or minimizing the genetic and biological underpinnings.

Red Flags re: Family
1.) The professional blames the parents (either subtly or overtly) for causing or “contributing to the development of” the patient’s ED.
2.) The professional advises the parents: “Don’t be the food police.”
3.) The professional does not keep parents of minor patients (< 18 years) fully informed and actively involved in their child’s treatment. 4.) The professional views parents with suspicion or keeps them at arm’s length, without reasonable cause. Red Flags re: Treatment 1.) The professional is not knowledgeable about evidence-based treatment for EDs. 2.) The professional cannot, or does not, explain the treatment method she uses and / or the rationale behind it. 3.) The professional recommends or allows individual psychotherapy without ongoing nutritional restoration, weight restoration, and medical monitoring. 4.) The professional is very interested in exploring “underlying issues” in an acutely symptomatic patient. 5.) The professional insists on addressing the patient’s co-morbid conditions without also (either first or simultaneously) addressing the ED symptoms. 6.) The professional has never heard of Maudsley / Family-Based Treatment (FBT), or has heard the term but knows nothing about it.
7.) The professional asserts that Maudsley / FBT “will not work” for this particular patient, without giving a convincing explanation for this assertion.
8.) The professional blames the patient (either subtly or overtly) for having an ED.
9.) The professional advises parents to send their child or adolescent away to a residential treatment center without first trying Maudsley / FBT, unless it is clearly contraindicated.

Red Flags re: Recovery
1.) The professional asserts that the acutely ill patient “has to want to eat” or “has to want to recover.”
2.) The professional emphasizes the adolescent or young adult patient’s need for control and independence as more important than her recovery from ED.
3.) The professional sets or allows a target weight range based on population indices (e.g., BMI of 18.5) or percentiles (e.g., 50th percentile for age/height) without consideration of the individual patient’s build, weight history, or optimal weight.
4.) The professional declares the patient “recovered” based on weight alone, without regard for her behavior or mental state.
5.) The professional asserts that one never recovers from an eating disorder.

This list of red flags may be useful when you are looking for or ruling out a professional or treatment program based on information on their website; it may also be useful in interviewing potential new therapists. If you or your loved one have been in treatment for a while without making progress, you can also use these red flags to help you assess the situation and determine whether to go elsewhere for a second opinion.

My advice? If you see one or two of these red flags in your therapist or treatment program, investigate and proceed with caution. If you see three or more, find a new therapist.

Defeating the Monster: Helping Little Girls Overcome Anorexia Nervosa

Over the past two years, I have had an influx of very young girls with Anorexia Nervosa (AN) come to me for treatment. This trend mirrors recent media coverage of the rise in AN among pre-teens. When I tell friends and acquaintances about my work, they are shocked and horrified to learn that many of my AN patients are between 9-12 years old. The typical response is first incredulity, then a remark about how “sad” it is that little girls are under such pressure to be thin and perfect. I am not sad about this at all – in fact, a very young child presenting for AN treatment represents an ideal scenario.

Let me explain. First, there are no good data to support the popular notion that the prevalence of AN has increased over the past few decades (in contrast, the prevalence of bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder has skyrocketed in recent decades, but that is beyond the scope of this post). Most data in fact suggest that the incidence of AN has remained constant throughout recorded history. Second, we do not yet know how to prevent AN, nor do we know whether AN is possible to prevent.

We do know that children are being diagnosed with and treated for AN at much younger ages now compared to a generation ago. Research has also shown that the prognosis for AN is inversely correlated with age and duration of illness prior to the start of effective treatment. In other words, the younger the patient, the better her chance for full recovery.

The 5th and 6th grade girls who are diagnosed with AN today would most likely have developed AN anyway, but in previous generations the illness would not have been triggered, diagnosed, or treated until later in adolescence, when it is more difficult to treat. Therefore, I view younger age of onset as a positive thing.

AN is triggered by an energy imbalance – that is, a period of time in which a person’s caloric intake is lower than her body’s energy needs. My theory is that kids are developing AN at younger ages because there are more opportunities for energy imbalance to occur in younger children now compared to generations past.

Several factors contribute to this trend of children developing AN at younger ages:

1.) National hysteria about the “obesity epidemic” and well-intentioned but misguided government programs aimed at children.

Children who are predisposed to AN tend to be anxious, sensitive, perfectionistic, rigid, and overly compliant with rules. These are the kids who actually take the “obesity prevention” messages to heart and follow them to the letter. They avoid “unhealthy foods” (e.g., those high in calories) in favor of “healthy foods” (e.g., those low in calories and fat), thus creating a negative energy balance and triggering AN. The irony here is that it is very unhealthy for a growing child to eat a low-fat or restricted-calorie diet.

2.) Earlier puberty.

This generation of children tends to enter puberty earlier than their parents or grandparents. The hormonal changes of puberty, combined with the increased energy needs of the pubertal growth spurt, provide a perfect opportunity for a negative energy balance. Add to that the tendency of girls to begin dieting to counteract their body’s pubertal changes to conform to the thin ideal, and you have a perfect storm.

3.) Participation in intense athletics at younger ages.

It used to be that athletically-inclined kids did not begin intense athletic training until high school. These days, 6-year-old kids begin practicing for their sport multiple nights per week and traveling to games on the weekends. These kids have extremely high energy needs, as they must consume enough food to fuel their sports in addition to keeping up with normal growth and development. Kids who are predisposed to AN are not able to eat enough to fuel their body’s needs. Further, thinness is considered an advantage in many sports such as gymnastics, track and field, cross country, dance, cheerleading, and diving.

4.) Increased stress.

The modern lifestyle is fast-paced, rushed, overscheduled, and pressured for all of us, even children. Every time I listen to an elderly person talk about their childhood, I am struck by how different life was in the 1940’s and ‘50’s and how much more laid back things were for children then. Stress can trigger loss of appetite, which creates a negative energy balance, which can be the beginning of AN in a vulnerable child.

5.) Decrease in family meals.

For a number of reasons, including busy schedules, families are eating together less often now. If a young child is responsible for fixing her own breakfast, packing her own lunch, or microwaving her own dinner, it is much easier for her to skip meals or restrict her food intake without her parents knowing.

6.) Ignorant pediatricians.

In most cases, pediatricians are the first healthcare professionals to spot (or miss) early signs of an eating disorder. I cannot count the number of patients I have seen whose pediatrician was completely unconcerned by a child or adolescent’s weight loss or failure to gain weight. They will often say things such as “Don’t worry, she’s still in the normal weight range for her age” or “she could lose 10 more pounds and still be fine.” Even worse, many pediatricians will congratulate a child for losing weight. It is as if pediatricians have become so consumed with “fighting childhood obesity” that they have forgotten that kids are supposed to grow and gain weight from birth until age 20. Weight loss is not normal or healthy for any child or adolescent. Generations ago, people understood this, and any weight loss in a child was cause for alarm. You know how grandparents always want to feed you a lot, and say “you’re looking thin” as if it were a bad thing?

Like many diseases, AN in children presents differently than in teens or adults. Here are some key differences I have observed in the young children I treat:

1.) Young children are much less likely than teenagers to fall into AN through dieting. In little girls, the negative energy balance is more likely to result from unintentional weight loss through illness, athletic training, or “healthy eating.”

2.) Fear of fat, drive for thinness, and body dysmorphia – which are considered the hallmark cognitive symptoms of AN – are often absent in young children. Eating provokes extreme fear and resistance, but they often cannot articulate why.

3.) Young children are more likely to present with dehydration as well as malnourishment. Whereas teenage anorexics drink large quantities of water, diet soda, and black coffee, little kids sometimes cannot grasp the concept of calories. Many little kids with AN will fear and avoid anything that enters the mouth- including water, gum, vitamins, and medicine.

4.) Teens and adults with AN usually have a list of “safe foods” which are low calorie and low fat – such as salads, fruit, rice cakes, and nonfat yogurt – and they tend to fear high calorie foods such as ice cream and pizza. However, sometimes young children’s food rules and food fears make no caloric sense. For example, I have worked with children who will willingly consume any beverage, including milkshakes, but who refuse to take a bite of solid food, even a carrot stick. Other kids will have a narrow list of safe foods which are familiar but not low-calorie (e.g., chicken nuggets, pop tarts, and grilled cheese sandwiches).

5.) Young children become medically and mentally unstable much more quickly than teenagers. Post-pubescent teen girls and women, even slender ones, start out at a higher body mass and have reserves of fat. Prepubescent children are already light and very lean. A loss of even a few pounds is enough to cause severe medical problems and extreme cognitive distortions in a child. It is not uncommon for a child to go away to summer camp completely healthy and return three weeks later in grave danger.

6.) It is easier for young children to externalize their illness. They often describe feeling “taken over” by a voice or by some evil force beyond their control. They love to name their illness and refer to it in the third person, unlike teenagers who tend to balk at this exercise, or who experience their illness as more ego-syntonic. My young patients have come up with various names for their illness – the monster, the beast, the devil, Scary Larry, and Voldemort are a few that come to mind.

In my experience, young children tend to make a full recovery more quickly and more easily than teens or young adults. Because they fall into AN so quickly and because they are still so dependent on their parents, they are brought into treatment very early in the course of the illness. Their AN thoughts and behaviors are not as engrained as, say, a 16-year-old who has suffered from AN for two years.

Young children are more dependent on their parents than teens. Thus, it is far easier for both parent and child to adjust to the “magic plate” technique of parents preparing and supervising all meals and snacks – this is not so different from what most parents do for their healthy 10-year-olds anyway. It is extremely difficult for teens and especially young adults to accept the amount of parental support and supervision required for successful re-feeding.

I love treating little girls with AN. Each time I get a call from a terrified parent whose little girl who is showing signs of AN, I breathe a sigh of relief, grateful that they have come to my attention so early in the course of the illness. Although these children and their families are in for a harrowing journey, I have complete confidence that they will defeat the monster. These kids can enter their teen years fully recovered and able to enjoy high school and college unencumbered by this horrible illness.

Why Clinicians Are Resistant to Maudsley FBT

Research has shown that the Maudsley Method of Family-Based Treatment (FBT) is more effective than any other treatment for anorexia nervosa (AN) or bulimia nervosa (BN) in patients under age 18. Despite this fact, many clinicians who treat eating disorders are very resistant to using FBT to treat their patients. There are a variety of reasons for this resistance – some legitimate, some personal, some inexcusable, and some bred from ignorance.

Here are some of the most common reasons why clinicians who treat eating disorders are resistant to using FBT, along with my rebuttals to each:

1.) “I work with adults. FBT is not applicable to most adults.”

While FBT has not been adequately studied in adults, the reality is that there are no evidence-based treatments for adults with AN yet. I believe that patients over age 18 need to have loved ones fully informed about their illness and actively involved in their treatment just as much as young patients. The basic principles of FBT (with some age-appropriate modifications) are now being applied to older patients with very promising results.

As Cynthia Bulik’s recent study on Uniting Couples Against Anorexia Nervosa demonstrated, the principles of FBT can be applied very successfully to adults, using spouses or significant others for support rather than parents.

Also, there is some preliminary evidence that a modified version of FBT can be useful for college-aged patients who are temporarily living at home with parents during recovery. There may very well be a time in the not-too-distant future in which a modified form of FBT is an evidence-based treatment for adults.

2.) “Some families can’t do it.”

This statement is absolutely true – some families can’t do it. However, I believe that the true percentage of families who “can’t do it” is actually much smaller than one may think. FBT can be successful in divorced families, step-families, single-parent families, families with many children, families where both parents work full time, and families in which a parent suffers from a mental illness.

The only real contraindications for FBT in patients under18 are cases in which the patient has been physically or sexually abused by a parent, or both parents are so mentally or physically ill that they are unable to care for their children. Both of these contraindications are relatively rare, and even in these cases, one would hope that the patient would be living in a safe environment with other adults (e.g., relatives, foster parents) who could participate in FBT with the patient.

What happens too often is that parents don’t purse FBT because they aren’t aware it exists, or aren’t aware of the evidence behind it. It is also common for parents to be discouraged from doing FBT with their child because the child’s clinician (who is not really familiar with FBT or who doesn’t agree with it) tells the parent that it won’t work for their particular child for some reason.

In sum, I would estimate that maybe 10 % of families really can’t do it (I have no data to support this percentage; it is just an educated guess). The majority of families can do it if they have the proper clinical support and encouragement. The majority of parents love their children immensely and will do anything to help them recover if given the opportunity. It is up to us, the clinicians, to give families that opportunity.

3.) “Some adolescents don’t improve with FBT.”

I have no counterpoint to this one. The reality is that FBT is not effective for everyone. This is not a shortcoming unique to FBT, as there are no treatments that work for 100% of patients. I doubt that there will ever be one treatment that works for everyone in the same diagnostic category, because each individual patient is unique and has their own set of circumstances. Therefore, we must continue to research other forms of treatment and work to improve upon the existing treatments. When a patient does not improve with FBT, we must offer something else – residential treatment, day treatment, cognitive behavioral therapy – whatever is most appropriate for that particular patient and that particular family.

4.) “My training and inclination is as an individual therapist. Making the switch to working with families is intimidating. Learning FBT would be like starting from scratch.”

I don’t see it as starting from scratch. Rather, I see it as adding another (very effective) tool to your existing toolbox. You certainly don’t need to abandon individual therapy just because you’ve added a new treatment to your repertoire.

While some patients will recover fully with FBT and never need individual therapy, most patients do have co-morbid disorders or other issues which need to be addressed with individual therapy. In these cases, individual therapy comes after FBT. Many times I have transitioned to individual therapy with a patient after the patient has successfully recovered with FBT. The great thing about this approach is that the eating disorder has already been fully addressed through FBT, so you and the patient can focus all your time and energy on other things, such as depression, OCD, body image issues, perfectionism, and social difficulties.

5.) “My training is in psychodynamic therapy and relational approaches. FBT is pretty concrete and behavioral. Adopting FBT would seem to remove the very things that made me want to become a therapist in the first place – the focus on depth and the therapeutic relationship.”

FBT is more concrete and behavioral than other types of therapy, and I believe that is part of why it is so effective in treating these malignant illnesses which demand immediate behavioral management in order to save the patient’s health. That being said, the therapeutic relationship is just as essential in FBT as it is in other types of treatment. The parents and the therapist must develop trust in one another, and mutual respect is key, because the parents and therapist are allies working together against the illness on behalf of the child. It is extremely rewarding to be able to offer this kind of assistance and support to terrified, confused, guilt-stricken parents, who blossom with confidence as you educate them about the illness and empower them to do what needs to be done to help their child recover.

And the kids! It is nothing short of amazing to watch the therapeutic relationship evolve and unfold so quickly as recovery progresses. In the first few sessions, the kid typically presents as catatonically depressed, curled up in a fetal position under a blanket, sobbing quietly; or the kid reacts with extreme anger and resistance, yelling and hurling insults and dropping f-bombs before running out of the room. Entire tissue boxes are gone through in one session; stuffed animals need to be placed back on the shelves after being thrown. And within a few months, the kid is smiling, laughing, so happy to see you, chattering on about their trip to Disney World or their new boyfriend or how much they love ‘90’s music exclaiming “Wow, Dr. Ravin, it must have been so cool to be a teenager back in the ‘90’s!” The transformation is astounding.

Furthermore, there is lots of room for a tremendous amount of depth when continuing to work with the patient individually after FBT has been successfully completed. In fact, is even more feasible to go into greater depth in these cases, because the eating disorder is in remission and health-threatening behaviors have long-since been eliminated, so treatment can focus exclusively on other (often more interesting!) issues.

6.) “FBT is agnostic on etiology, and I think etiology is very important.”

Yes, FBT is agnostic with regards to etiology. In other words, the clinician states clearly at the outset of treatment that we don’t know exactly what causes eating disorders, and that it is not relevant for the purposes of this treatment. I believe this agnostic stance is one of the strengths of FBT: it does not waste time on “why” but instead focuses on “how” to help the patient recover.

I agree that etiology is very important because our ideas about etiology (for better or for worse) have a huge impact on how we treat patients. Therefore, clinicians and researchers must continue to have professional discussions about etiology amongst themselves.

My concern is not the discussion of etiology amongst professionals in the field. Rather, my concerns are 1.) When clinicians have a particular presumption about etiology which is not consistent with recent scientific evidence, 2.) When that particular presumption guides the use of treatments that are less effective, and 3.) When those presumptions about etiology cause harm to patients and their families by subtly or overtly blaming the patient or the family.

In my opinion, when clinicians discuss etiology with patients and their families, these discussions should be limited to the following points:

A.) Clarifying that neither the patient nor the family is to blame for the illness.

B.) Dispelling common myths about etiology (e.g., media, control issues, overprotective parents)

C.) Discussing the “Four P’s:” predisposing factors (e.g., genetic predisposition), precipitating factors (e.g., weight loss through dieting or illness), perpetuating factors (e.g., malnutrition has a calming and mood-elevating effect on those who are vulnerable to eating disorders), and prognostic factors (e.g., importance of early and aggressive intervention, maintenance of optimal body weight).

This is all the information patients and families need to know about etiology, because let’s be frank: this is all we really know about etiology. Anything else is just a distraction.