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.

The Price of Assumption

Recently, there have been heated debates between clinicians and parent advocates regarding the role of environmental and family issues in eating disorders. Some people insist that family dynamics and environmental factors play a role in the development of an eating disorder. Others bristle at the possibility. Some people say “families don’t cause eating disorders, BUT…” Others fixate on the “but” and disregard everything else.

My views on this issue are complex. Thankfully, my views became much clearer to me as I was watching an episode of the E! True Hollywood Story entitled Britney Spears: The Price of Fame. Now I am able to articulate my views on this topic in a way that most people can understand.

Numerous magazine and newspaper articles have reported that Britney Spears has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. According to unnamed “sources close to the pop star,” Spears was suffering from untreated bipolar disorder during her public meltdown and psychiatric hospitalization in 2008. While I have not treated Britney and thus cannot ethically make a diagnosis, I will say that her erratic behavior circa 2006-2008 could be explained by a bipolar diagnosis, and that the rate of bipolar disorder is thought to be quite high amongst people in the creative and performing arts.

Scientists now know that bipolar disorder is a neurobiologically-based, genetically transmitted disease. However, rather than focusing on the neurobiology or genetics of bipolar disorder, The E! True Hollywood Story explored various influences in Britney’s life that fueled her self-destructive behavior. Clearly, this type of commentary is far more interesting to the typical E! viewer than neurobiology, my own preferences notwithstanding. Several mental health professionals were interviewed and gave their opinions as to the influence of early stardom, family problems, a stage mom, excessive fame, and extreme wealth on the pop star’s behavior. Sadly, though, the viewer is led to believe that these environmental and family issues are the cause of Britney’s downfall.

Did Britney’s family or environment cause her bipolar disorder? No. Neither family nor environment can cause a brain disorder.

Did her family or environment fuel her bipolar disorder? Yes. And here’s how: Let’s say Britney had taken a different path in life, married a plumber instead of Kevin Federline and worked as a preschool teacher instead of a pop star. Let’s say she stayed in her small Louisiana hometown, never dabbled in drugs or heavy drinking, went to bed every night at a decent hour, and maintained close, age appropriate relationships with her family and good friends, making a decent living but nothing more. Would she still have developed bipolar disorder? Yes, I absolutely believe she would have (remember, most people with bipolar disorder are not pop stars, but regular people). However, her disease would have been much more easily diagnosed and treated if she had been surrounded and supported by normal, loving people who could influence her in a positive way. As it happened, her disease was certainly protracted and exacerbated by the lifestyle of a pop star, which includes late nights, insufficient sleep, excessive amounts of alcohol and drugs, and endless amounts of power and money.

If Britney’s therapist had held a family session with Lynne and Jamie Spears and Kevin Federline in attempts to “explore the family dynamics which contributed to the disorder,” that would be a complete waste of time. The elder Spears’ and Mr. Federline – the very people who are in the best position to help Britney recover – would have felt subtly blamed and marginalized. There is nothing to be gained, and everything to be lost, by approaching a brain disorder in this fashion.

The most ideal situation for Britney would be for her parents and K-Fed (and any other people close to her) to work together to provide family-based support to help her recover and to help eliminate any environmental or family factors which may be fueling her disease. It would be most helpful for her family members to be educated about bipolar disorder and understand that it is a biologically-based brain disease that she did not choose and that they did not cause. The family would also need to know that certain environmental factors, such as pregnancy and childbirth, stress, insufficient sleep, drugs and alcohol, medication non-compliance, or excessive emotional distress, can trigger episodes and exacerbate symptoms. The family would need to learn pro-active ways to help Britney manage her environment in a way that is most conducive to achieving mental and physical wellness.

In considering this example, it is important to bear in mind that people with bipolar disorder run the gamut from pop stars to professors to businessmen to truck drivers to homeless panhandlers. Families of people with bipolar disorder also run the gamut – some are amazing and supportive, others are average, and some are downright abusive. If treatment for bipolar disorder is to be successful, the clinician must perform a thorough evaluation of the patient and family, and the information gleaned from that assessment should be used to guide treatment decisions. A good clinician would not presume that the family of a person with bipolar disorder is dysfunctional or abusive, or that family dynamics caused or contributed to the development of the disorder. Similarly, a good clinician would not presume that the family is healthy or that there is nothing the family needs to change. Quite simply, a good clinician would not assume anything – she would simply perform an assessment and tailor her approach to the strengths, limitations, and realities of that particular patient and family, in line with the most recent evidence-based research.

Eating disorders are also neurobiologically-based, genetically transmitted diseases which patients don’t choose and parents don’t cause. Family issues and environment certainly can fuel eating disorders by encouraging dieting or glorifying thinness, by making diagnosis more difficult or treatment less accessible, or by making recovery harder than it needs to be.

All eating disorder patients have a biological brain disease which most likely would have arisen, at some point in time and to some degree, regardless of family or environment. Some patients have family or environmental issues which are fueling their disorder, and some do not. If such familial or environmental issues exist, they usually become quite obvious if you do a thorough assessment. These family or environmental issues will need to be addressed in treatment, not because they caused the eating disorder, but because they can trigger or exacerbate symptoms and interfere with full recovery.

But if there are no obvious familial or environmental issues fueling the disorder, please don’t waste time searching for them. You aren’t doing the patient or the family any good by “being curious,” or “just exploring.” You are simply satisfying your own voyeuristic drive, as I fulfilled mine by watching the E! True Hollywood Story on Britney Spears.

Pride and Prejudice

“It is never too late to give up your prejudices…No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof. What everybody echoes or in silence passes by as true today may turn out to be falsehood tomorrow, mere smoke of opinion.”

Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Last weekend, I attended the annual National Eating Disorders Association conference in New York City. It was a fantastic conference and an exhilarating experience, a whirlwind of thinking and conversing and listening and networking.

That said, I attended a few lectures that made me cringe and perhaps set the field back a few years. One well-known psychologist and author stated in her lecture that there’s a false dichotomy between research and practice, because all clinicians are, ipso facto, researchers. She went on to explain to the clinicians in the room that that if you work with eating disorder patients and you contemplate eating disorder issues, then you are a researcher.

I think, therefore I am…a researcher?

And therein lies the rub. Working with eating disorder patients and thinking about them does not make you a researcher anymore than watching MSNBC and contemplating the mid-term election makes you a political scientist.

Historically, a major problem within the field of eating disorders is that etiological theories were formed, and treatment approaches created, based upon clinicians’ casual observation and reflection. Hilde Bruch, MD, who wrote the highly influential book The Golden Cage (1978), based her theories on her observation and treatment of the anorexic patients in her practice. Bruch concluded that anorexia nervosa occurs almost exclusively in upper-class white families (because those were the families, residing in her primarily Caucasian neighborhood, who could afford to enter treatment with her), that dysfunctional patterns of family interaction are key in the etiology of anorexia nervosa (because she observed strained and tense relationships between her severely ill patients and their worried parents) and that anorexia represents a misguided attempt at forming an identity and asserting some control over an otherwise uncontrollable life (based upon the self-reports of malnourished patients suffering from a brain disease).

This book was immensely popular amongst clinicians and the general public, as it was the first book to attempt to explain anorexia nervosa, and these theories became professional dogma. Bruch’s ideas spread like wildfire, and it would be many years before scientific research would be published to counter her claims. And to this day, more than three decades later, many clinicians, anorexics, and their families still hold these beliefs.

We are, in general, resistant to change. People have a very hard time letting go of long-held beliefs, which may explain why societal change tends to happen incrementally over generations. Many clinicians have so much pride in the work they have done in the past, and so much prejudice against new ideas which are diametrically opposed to their own, that they vigorously defend the theories they have held forever even when all reliable evidence points to the contrary. They seek to assimilate new information into their preexisting beliefs (for example, a racist person may boast about having one black friend, claiming that his buddy is “not like most black people”) rather than abandoning their old beliefs once it becomes clear that they are flawed. To quote the 17th century philosopher John Locke: “New opinions are always suspected, and usually opposed, without any other reason but because they are not already common.”

It is essential, therefore, that the most recent scientific research on the etiology and effective treatment of eating disorders is featured prominently and unapologetically at local, national, and global events aimed professionals, patients, and families in the eating disorder world. The new message cannot be muted or diluted with antiquated theories or treatments under the politically-correct assumption that all ideas are equally valid. As it is, big-name wealthy treatment centers get the most publicity, most likely because of their massive donations to eating disorder organizations who feature them prominently in exhibit halls at conferences. People are so easily swayed by catch phrases and neat giveaways and glossy brochures featuring impossibly happy eating disordered teenagers riding horses and finger painting. But these centers do not necessarily offer the most effective treatments. If we want our field to make progress, if we truly want to save more lives and rescue more sufferers from the agony of this illness, money cannot trump science.

One of the most promising statements I heard all weekend was this, from a psychologist who is the director of an eating disorders treatment program:

“It is no longer acceptable, in 2010, for clinicians to practice a certain way simply because they have been practicing that way for years.”

My friend Carrie Arnold and I gave a standing ovation to that one and clapped until our hands hurt.

We invite you to join us in doing the same.

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.

Recovery Timeline for Maudsley FBT

I recently conducted an informal survey of parents who had used the Maudsley Method of Family-Based Treatment to help their children recover from eating disorders. My intention was to gather some preliminary data on recovery milestones which I could share with patients and families who are just embarking on the recovery journey. Then I realized that other people may benefit from this information as well.

The following data were collected from parents of some of my patients (past and present) as well as from parents on FEAST’s caregiver forum, Around the Dinner Table. A total of 22 parents submitted responses. The patients (20 female, 2 male) ranged in age from 10 – 24 years when their family started Maudsley (mean age = 15.3 years).

The patients in my sample varied dramatically with regard to the length of their illness. Some parents reported that they began Maudsley within a month after their child’s first eating disorder symptoms appeared. Other parents had watched their child continue to suffer from the devastating effects of ED through many years of ineffective treatment and numerous hospitalizations before finally turning to Maudsley as a last resort.
Granted, this is not good science, but it is a start.

Length of time from onset of symptoms to beginning of refeeding
Mean = 18.8 months
Median = 6.25 months
Range = 1 – 132 months

Length of time from start of refeeding to weight restoration
Mean = 6.7 months
Median = 4.5 months
Range = 2 – 24 months

Length of time from weight restoration to acknowledgement of having ED
Mean = 1.1 months
Median = 0 (acknowledged having ED when he/she became weight restored)
Range = 0 – 16 months
(90 % of the sample acknowledged having ED at or before weight-restoration)

Length of time from weight restoration to developing motivation to recover
Mean = 4.6 months
Median = 0 months (motivation developed at the time of weight restoration)
Range = 0 – 24 months

Length of time from weight restoration to eating independently while maintaining weight
Mean = 7.8 months
Median = 6.5 months
Range = 0 – 36 months

Length of time from weight restoration to mood normalization
Mean = 3.3 months
Median = 2 months
Range = 0 – 12 months

Length of time from weight restoration to normalization in anxiety (return to pre-ED level)
Mean = 6.5 months
Median = 3 months
Range = 0 – 36 months

Length of time from weight-restoration to absence of body dysmorphia
Mean = 6.9 months
Median = 4 months
Range = 0 – 24 months

Clearly, more rigorous research is necessary in order to draw definitive conclusions. However, I’ve drawn some preliminary conclusions based on my data:

1.) The Maudsley Method can be effective for children, adolescents, and adults. It can be effective for both males and females.
2.) The Maudsley Method can be effective even for young adults who have been ill for 10 years or more.
3.) Most patients who are beginning Maudsley treatment have anosognosia – they do not recognize that they are ill and do not have motivation to recover. The patient does not have to “want to get better” in order for treatment to begin.
4.) The majority of patients develop insight and motivation to recover around the time that they reach a healthy body weight. For some patients, insight and motivation develop gradually after a number of months at ideal body weight.
5.) Patients generally require continued meal support for an average of 6 months after weight restoration.
6.) The manualized Maudsley approach (Lock, LeGrange, Agras, & Dare, 2001) recommends beginning to hand control of eating back to the patient when she reaches 90% of ideal body weight. This is probably too soon for most patients.
7.) The majority of patients must sustain a healthy body weight for 3-6 months before depression, anxiety, and body dysmorphia abate.

This is interesting food for thought (pun intended). I am interested in conducting a much larger survey on families that have used Maudsley. I’d like to gather enough participants and enough data points to be able to do some actual complex statistical analyses – maybe some ANOVA’s or multiple regressions. Through this study, I’d like to examine which variables contribute to recovery time. For example, what features differentiate patients who are able to eat independently at weight restoration vs. those who need continued meal support? What differentiates the patients whose psychological symptoms melt away with weight restoration vs. those who continue to struggle? Most importantly, I would like to use data from this future study to find ways in which the Maudsley method could be improved.

What questions would you like to see answered? I welcome any and all suggestions!

Everything I Need to Know I Learned From Adolescents

A 31-year-old woman named Monica recently died from anorexia nervosa (AN) following a 15-year battle with the disease. Her death is an eerie reminder of what we already know: eating disorders are dangerous, deadly, and difficult to treat. Traditional treatment for AN typically takes 5-7 years. Less than half of patients with AN will ever fully recover, and of those who do recover, one-third will relapse. Nearly 20% of patients with AN will die as a result of their illness.

Just a decade ago, only 30% of patients fully recovered, and now nearly 50% will fully recover. The reasons for the improved prognosis include greater awareness about eating disorders, which leads to earlier diagnosis and treatment, and the advent of more effective, evidence-based treatment for adolescent AN, such as Maudsley Family-Based Treatment. But early diagnosis, early intervention, and the Maudsley method primarily benefit adolescents. Consequently, I would presume that the 20% increase in recovery rates over the past decade is primarily due to the recovery of more adolescents, not the recovery of more chronically-ill adults.

Although AN typically begins in early adolescence, those who die from the disease are more often adults who have battled it for many years. The most effective course of action is early diagnosis and aggressive, evidence-based treatment as soon as symptoms appear. Unfortunately, there are countless adults with AN who have struggled for years or even decades. As of this time, there are no evidence-based treatments for adults with AN, nor are there any medications which have been proven to benefit adults with AN. CBT has been shown to be moderately beneficial in preventing relapse in weight-restored AN patients but shows no benefit in underweight anorexics.

A lot of the AN treatment offered today is outdated and ineffective. Fortunately, however, there are more and more clinicians and treatment centers who are adopting modern, evidence-based approaches to treating adolescent AN that have much higher success rates. For example, the Kartini Clinic, the UCSD 5-Day Intensive Family Program, and the Children’s Hospital at the University of Chicago have adopted a highly-practical family-based, evidence-based approach to treating adolescent AN based on the Maudsley Method.

We can learn a lot from the success of these adolescent programs. I believe that we can use the basic principles of Maudsley FBT and the philosophy of these adolescent treatment programs to develop effective treatments for adults. Medicine, psychology, and psychiatry do this all the time in the reverse; that is, they extend effective adult treatments to adolescents. If a particular medication or psychotherapy approach demonstrates effectiveness in adults, clinicians automatically begin using it in adolescents, often without any research data to support its use in this population. Clinical trials are then conducted on adolescents, and research data follows.

Consider the basic principles of Maudsley FBT:
1. Conceptualization of AN as a biologically-based brain disorder of unknown origin
2. Externalizing the illness
3. Viewing family members as vital resources in a patient’s recovery
4. Recognition that most of the symptoms of AN are direct result of malnutrition and thus will abate after weight restoration
5. Focus on nutritional rehabilitation and weight restoration as non-negotiable first priorities in treatment
6. Acknowledgment that patients with AN are unable, in the acute phase of illness, to make healthy decisions regarding food and weight
7. Coaching parents to provide emotional and nutritional support to their child
8. Addressing psychological symptoms and other comorbid disorders after weight restoration

Which of these principles are irrelevant in the treatment of adults?

I see no logical reason why we cannot use Maudsley FBT in the treatment of adults with AN. Based on the patient’s circumstance and living situation, spouses, roommates, friends, or significant others may be enlisted for meal support in lieu of parents. The specific details may need to be tweaked in order to be relevant to an adult patient’s situation, but the general principles would remain the same. After all, the physical and psychological symptoms of AN are the same regardless of whether the patient is an adolescent or an adult. AN stunts growth and development and prevent sufferers from becoming independent, fully-functional beings. Thus, adults with AN are regressed physically, sexually, and socially to the point that they often resemble adolescents anyway.

The differences that do exist between adolescent and adult forms of AN are not inherent to the disease itself or even to the age of the patient. Rather, they are imposed by society. We, as a society, have arbitrarily determined that teenagers are fully responsible for their own healthcare decisions once they reach their 18th birthday. This is the case regardless of whether the patient has an ego-syntonic, anosognosic condition such as AN which impairs their judgment and insight. By virtue of their illness, adults with AN are unable to make healthy decisions for themselves. And yet, the law prohibits parental involvement, even parental notification of treatment, unless the patient signs a release. The law clearly sides with AN, not with the patient.

Family support and family involvement are powerful predictors of good outcome. Unfortunately, most therapists consider parental involvement in an adult patient’s treatment unnecessary or even detrimental. These therapists believe that the etiology of AN is rooted in controlling parents, separation anxiety, and issues related to independence and autonomy. Thus, they keep patients separated from the very people who love them most and who may be best equipped to help them achieve full recovery. This is counterproductive because a patient’s physical and psychological wellbeing must always take precedence over the developmental issues of emerging adults which, incidentally, have never been proven to be causally related to AN. Adult patients’ lives are threatened as a result of ignorant adherence to an unproven theory.

I firmly believe that Maudsley Family-Based Treatment can be effective in young adults. In fact, I have used this approach with young adults in my practice with great success. I have seen patients who have been sick for a decade, hospitalized multiple times, and endured several courses of ineffective residential treatment finally achieve recovery as outpatients through FBT. I look forward to the day when FBT is widely available to adults, as well as adolescents, with AN.

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.

Force feeding?

The idea of force-feeding in eating disorder treatment is highly controversial. It is ironic that the idea of requiring sustenance, which all living things need to survive anyway, has the power to create such extreme revulsion. Perhaps it is not so surprising that old-school treatment professionals object to force-feeding. You know the types – those who believe that eating disorders are “not about food,” that sufferers are the victims of over-controlling parents or a size-0 obsessed society or a fear of growing up. The idea that eating disorder patients have willfully chosen self-starvation, and will begin to eat again once their “underlying issues” have been resolved, follows logically from these unsubstantiated theories.

What really boggles my mind is that the very mention of force-feeding creates a visceral reaction even in well-informed clinicians who practice evidence-based treatment and parent advocates of Maudsley Family-Based Treatment. These individuals are fully aware that eating disorders render victims temporarily unable to nourish themselves, and they know from empirical literature and personal or clinical experience that re-feeding is the essential first step in successful eating disorders treatment. To me, it seems to follow logically from this knowledge that most patients with eating disorders cannot choose to eat and therefore must be forced to eat in order to recover. And yet, when confronted with the term “force-feeding,” Maudsley parent advocates and clinicians reframe the statement or circumvent the issue altogether. For example, a parent advocate whom I greatly admire states that “It is not forcing them to eat, it is letting them eat and live.” A clinician who practices Maudsley FBT writes that “Describing what we do in the Maudsley approach as “force feeding” is very misleading and I hope that we are able to continue to get the word out that this is a misconception.”

Most families encounter extreme resistance during re-feeding. I have heard stories of previously sweet, compliant, well-behaved young girls hurling swear words and spewing horrid insults at their parents during re-feeding. I myself have been on the receiving end of my share of f-bombs and hateful remarks from patients when I maintain an uncompromising stance of full nutrition and complete weight restoration. I have heard stories of girls running away from home, throwing ravioli across the room, smashing plates, locking themselves in rooms, and attempting to jump out of moving vehicles – all in response to the intolerable anxiety of re-feeding. And these scenarios are the norm, not the exception. I believe that families need to be fully informed of what is likely to happen during re-feeding so that they can prepare themselves to deal with what lies ahead. They need to know that what they are encountering is not evidence that they are doing something wrong, but rather is par for the course with this illness. But I digress.

The process of re-feeding an anorexic very often involves force. It has to, because most anorexics are not able to eat unless they are given no other alternative. In hospitals, this may require nasogastric tubes or IV nutrition. In residential or day treatment settings, it may involve earning privileges by finishing meals. In home-based re-feeding, it may involve not leaving the table until the meal or snack is 100% complete. The patient cannot choose to eat, but she will eat when she is forced. And she absolutely must eat a sufficient amount and variety of foods in order to recover. For those who have never experienced or witnessed the agony of an eating disorder, the idea of forcing someone to eat may sound inhumane. For those of us who have been in the trenches, we know that it is quite the opposite.

Our society values an individual’s right to make her own decisions. Respect for individual autonomy and self-determination is a cornerstone of democracy. In addition, our society embraces paternalism, which is the belief that it is ethical, at times, to intervene in the life of another person who does not desire such intervention because intervening will protect the person from harm, much in the way a loving father would intervene against his child’s wishes in order to protect the child. Our healthcare system and our government embrace the ethics of self-determination as well as the ethics of paternalism. For example, mandated reporter laws require physicians, therapists, social workers, and teachers to report cases of suspected child abuse and elder abuse, even if the victim doesn’t want the abuse to be reported. Laws allow for the temporary involuntary hospitalization of individuals who are suicidal, homicidal, or floridly psychotic. Many newer state laws require drivers to wear seatbelts and to abstain from text-messaging while driving. Hospitalized patients who engage in self-injury are forced into physical or chemical restraints. Children are forced to attend school at least through the age of 16. Suffice it to say that our great country, which was founded on the values of liberty and independence, recognizes that autonomy is not limitless. Children are forced to get an education and forcibly removed from abusive or neglectful homes. People are forced into hospitals for their own protection when they are a danger to themselves or others. Drivers are forced to wear seatbelts and forced to wait until they reach their destination before sending that oh-so-important text message.

Remember the 13-year-old cancer patient who skipped town with his mother last spring in order to escape court-ordered chemotherapy and radiation treatment? Well, the police eventually found him and forced him into treatment. He has just finished his last round of radiation and he is now cancer-free. This boy’s type of cancer has a 90% cure rate in children when treated with chemo and radiation. His doctors reported that he probably would have died if he hadn’t received these treatments.

Anorexia nervosa is also deadly and disabling disorder. Research shows us that most cases of adolescent anorexia nervosa can be successfully treated with a combination of full nutrition, weight restoration, family support, and evidence-based psychotherapy. Without treatment, or with “traditional” treatment which doesn’t aggressively push full nutrition, only 33% of patients ever fully recover.

I think I understand why people are frightened or repulsed by the idea of force-feeding. The idea of pushing full nutrition immediately after eating disorder diagnosis is still controversial, and to many people, the word “force” seems punitive or even abusive. It may conjure up images of physical torture and it may seem to conflict with the aforementioned democratic values. Eating disorder treatment should never be punitive or abusive (although it may feel punitive and abusive to the patient). Re-feeding is only one component of successful treatment. Cognitive, emotional, and behavioral symptoms and co-morbid conditions must be addressed as well. We all want to help patients recover rather than inflict further anguish. The illness itself is pure hell, and the recovery process can be even worse. But allowing the patient to engage in eating disorder symptoms is far more inhumane than force-feeding a patient to save her life, improve her health, and propel her towards full recovery.

Perhaps we are splitting hairs or just arguing over semantics. The American Heritage Dictionary provides several definitions of the verb “force,” including 1.) to compel to perform an action, 2.) to move something against resistance, and 3.) to produce with effort. Anyone who has witnessed, experienced, or been involved with the process of re-feeding an anorexic would undoubtedly agree that it involves 1.) compelling them to perform an action (eating), 2.) moving against resistance (the eating disorder thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and 3.) an extreme amount of effort for both the caregiver and the patient. Call it whatever you want – supported nutrition, letting them eat, helping them recover, empowering parents to combat eating disorder symptoms – all of these labels are quite accurate and descriptive. So is force-feeding. And I don’t believe it is a bad thing.

Palliative Care for Anorexia Nervosa?

I recently read an article in the International Journal of Eating Disorders entitled Managing the Chronic, Treatment-Resistant Patient with Anorexia Nervosa (Strober, 2004). Though eloquently written and artfully persuasive, this was probably the most depressing journal article I have ever read. The author, Michael Strober, seeks to help readers “resolve the paradox of caring for patients who seem so decidedly opposed to change.” Essentially, Strober advises psychologists to avoid pushing, or even encouraging, full nutrition and weight restoration in chronically ill patients with AN because these attempts will backfire by upsetting the patient emotionally and thus leading to premature termination of therapy. Instead, he argues, therapists “can expect little, should seek nothing, and must largely defer to the patient in regards to the objective of the time shared together.”

Strober states that the therapist’s attempts to encourage re-feeding “will feel like an assault” to the patient and are “certain to induce peril.” He warns therapists that their efforts to coerce patients into hospitalization or other much-needed medical care will result in “a potentially dangerous exacerbation of symptoms.” The article presents two tragic case studies of women in their late 20’s who have been chronically ill with AN since early adolescence. Each story is presented as a cautionary tale describing the deleterious effects of requiring full nutrition and weight restoration in these types of patients. Finally, Strober admonishes therapists to be aware of their counter-transference with such patients and advises them to “concede the reality that there may be little to do to drastically alter the course of a patient’s illness,” and notes that “this is neither failure nor inferiority.”

I view this entire philosophy as a manifestation of both failure and inferiority. Failure on the part of professionals who fear an emaciated patient’s wrath more than they fear her death. Failure on the part of a profession which espouses the dogma that avoiding premature termination of treatment is more important than avoiding premature termination of the patient’s life. Failure on the part of a philosophy that values nurturing the therapeutic relationship more than it values giving a patient a fighting chance at life, health, and happiness. These patients have not failed treatment. Treatment has failed them.

Strober argues that there is a place in our field for palliative care for treatment-resistant anorexics. I disagree. Anorexia nervosa is, by definition, resistant to treatment. The “peril” that ensues during re-feeding is real and universal. Re-feeding is agonizing for the patient herself, her friends and family, and her treatment team. Anyone who has ever made the heroic journey from AN to recovery will tell you that. I have never met an anorexic who gladly relinquished rigid control over her diet, voluntarily prepared and consumed high-calorie meals, and excitedly welcomed weight restoration without struggle. A person such as this would not have been diagnosed with AN in the first place. Chronically ill patients with AN are not resistant to treatment. Treatment is resistant to them.

Towards the end of the article, Strober warns therapists to keep their counter-transference in check by not pushing patients too hard, not expecting recovery, and resigning themselves to the reality that these patients are destined for a lifetime of illness and misery followed by a premature death. He notes that many therapists are not well-suited for providing palliative care to treatment-resistant anorexics. I, for one, am certainly not cut out for that type of work. I am not able to sit impassively with a patient who has been ill for fifteen years without taking draconian measures to propel her towards health. I recognize that responsibility for her recovery, at least initially, lies with me and with her family. I would not expect a patient with that level of illness to embrace recovery. That’s my job, not hers.

Individuals with AN are almost universally brilliant, talented, sensitive, and intense. They have so much potential, so many gifts to offer the world. They are physicians and nurses and lawyers, scientists and professors and teachers. They are outstanding athletes, writers, singers, dancers, actresses, and artists. Consider three-time Grammy-winning singer Karen Carpenter who died of AN at age 33 and world-class gymnast Christy Henrich, who died of AN at age 22. These women were beloved daughters, loyal sisters, caring friends.

It baffles me that, in a society which purports to value human life, we allow these precious lives slip away. The Bush administration placed restrictions on stem-cell research, supposedly out of concern for the sanctity of life. Nearly half of Americans are opposed to abortion. Our society believes that elderly, terminally ill patients in excruciating pain must not be allowed to die, as evidenced by the fact that doctor-assisted suicide is illegal in every state except Oregon. States have laws which allow for the involuntary hospitalization of imminently suicidal and floridly psychotic patients, recognizing that these individuals are not well enough to care for themselves. Psychiatric hospitals use 4-point restraints, sedatives, and padded rooms to prevent patients from injuring themselves. Prisoners are forbidden from having sharp objects and belts in order to protect them from taking their own lives. Death row inmates who attempt suicide are resuscitated. Don’t we owe the same to innocent people who are suffering from a horrible eating disorder?

10 Common Mistakes in Eating Disorder Treatment

Eating disorders are notoriously difficult to treat and have the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness. With traditional treatment, average time to recovery is 5-7 years, relapse is the norm, and many patients continue to suffer from chronic physical and mental illness for decades. Fortunately, new research has shed light on how we can help patients recover more quickly, prevent relapse, and live healthy, fulfilling lives. Below are 10 of the most common mistakes I’ve observed in the treatment of eating disorders.

1.) Setting target weight too low.

Physicians and dieticians will often set a patient’s minimum target weight at the low end of the statistically-determined “ideal” range. The minimum target weight thereafter becomes the maximum allowable weight in the patient’s mind, and she will do whatever she can to avoid going above it. There is no such thing as a universal minimum target weight. People vary dramatically in terms of body build, muscle mass, bone structure, body shape, and natural weight. Professionals need to take these factors into consideration when setting target weight ranges. The minimum target weight is often not sufficient to promote brain healing and repair the damage caused by malnutrition. “Out of immediate medical danger” does not translate to optimal physical and mental health. Many patients are left to struggle with ongoing depression, fatigue, anxiety, and preoccupation with food and weight because they haven’t reached their optimal body weight.

For children and adolescents, setting minimum target weight too low is especially dangerous because it fails to take into account the natural growth and physical development that occurs throughout adolescence. The ideal weight for a 13-year-old is not ideal for a 22 year-old. A 13-year-old patient who becomes fixated on her “minimum target weight” and maintains such a weight for a number of years is placing an indefinite moratorium on her physical, psychological, and sexual development. Another problem that is particularly disconcerting is that the minimum target weight set by professionals is often significantly lower than the patient’s pre-eating disorder weight, even if the patient was at a healthy weight before. Think about the subtle message this sends and how the ill patient may interpret it: “You were too big before, so you were right to start dieting.” This just feeds into the eating disorder. We need to send a different message: complete weight restoration is not negotiable.

2.) Discharging patients from inpatient or residential programs prematurely.

By “prematurely,” I mean several things: before the patient has reached her ideal body weight, before she has developed the skills to manage her symptoms, before other comorbid conditions have been diagnosed and treated, before the patient’s family has the knowledge and tools they need to support continuing recovery, or before a solid relapse-prevention plan is in place. According to my standards, then, the majority of patients are discharged prematurely. With treatment as usual, relapse is the norm, and repeated admission to hospitals and residential facilities is expected. It doesn’t have to be this way, and relapse may not be such a major problem if patients were treated fully and successfully the first time around. Of course, this will require healthcare reform and better insurance coverage in order to pay for a much longer duration of treatment, but I digress.

3.) Blaming parents for their child’s eating disorder.

Parents have traditionally been excluded from their children’s eating disorders treatment in large part because professionals have blamed them for causing the eating disorder. This viewpoint is based in psychoanalytic theory, not empirical fact, and to date there has been no reliable scientific evidence that parents cause eating disorders. Blaming parents is harmful to the entire family. It disempowers parents, angers and confuses the patient and her siblings, and interferes with the recovery process. Only a generation ago, parents were blamed for causing their children’s autism and schizophrenia. We now know that these illnesses are biologically-based brain disorders, and the idea of a “refrigerator mother” causing her son’s autism is ludicrous. I look forward to the day when the general public has the same sentiment about parents causing eating disorders.

4.) Failure to involve parents and other family members in the patient’s treatment.

Parents have a right and a responsibility to be fully informed and actively involved in their child’s treatment. Imagine how confusing and disempowering it is for parents to drop their child off at various appointments without being informed about the treatment and without being given an opportunity to ask questions, voice their concerns, or help with the recovery process. Likewise, adolescents have a right to have their parents fully informed and actively involved in their treatment. No child would have to manage cancer or diabetes independently. Why should it be any different for eating disorders? The research clearly indicates that involving parents in an adolescent’s eating disorder treatment dramatically increases her chance of full recovery.

Some therapists argue that involving parents in an adolescent’s treatment is counterproductive because it interferes with the adolescent’s burgeoning autonomy and encourages the family unit to remain enmeshed. In reality, the opposite is true. The eating disorder itself is disruptive to normal adolescent development and causes the patient to remain dependent on her parents. Family-based treatment approaches, such as the Maudsley Method, are first and foremost respectful of adolescent development. These approaches empower parents to help their children recover so that they may return to normal adolescent life, unencumbered by the illness.

5.) Basing interventions on unsubstantiated theories about the causes of eating disorders.

Our ideas about etiology inform our treatment approach. Consequently, incorrect assumptions about eating disorders tend to result in ineffective treatment. Let’s say, hypothetically, that controlling parents cause eating disorders. Or that media images which glorify thinness are responsible for eating disorders. Or that anorexia nervosa is caused by sexual abuse or is rooted in a desire to avoid growing up. Even if these things were true (and there is no reliable scientific evidence that they are), the first priorities in treatment should still be nutritional rehabilitation, weight restoration, and medical stability. Why? Because the patient’s life and health depend on it. Because research has consistently shown that many of the physical and mental symptoms of eating disorders are caused or exacerbated by malnutrition, restrictive eating, bingeing, and purging, and that these symptoms diminish with normalized eating and weight restoration. Because spending more time at a suboptimal weight, or engaging in food restriction, binge eating, or purging, is causing more physical and emotional damage. Because a weight-recovered, medically stable eating disordered patient who is receiving full nutrition is better equipped to explore and process the issues that may have triggered eating disorder symptoms in the first place.

6.) Viewing the patient’s symptoms as rationally chosen behaviors.

Recent research suggests that eating disorders are genetically-transmitted, biologically based mental illnesses, just like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. No one would choose the agony and suffering of an eating disorder. I think the general public may get confused about this point because, for healthy people, eating and exercise are voluntary behaviors that are largely under conscious control. For eating disorder patients, restrictive eating, fasting, excessive exercise, bingeing, and purging are compulsive behaviors brought about by a brain condition, perpetuated by malnutrition, and aggravated by emotional stress.

Not only is it incorrect to view eating disorders as choices, but it is dangerous as well. It leads to blaming patients for their illnesses, trying to talk them out of their symptoms, and giving them the responsibility of choosing recovery. Almost invariably, people with anorexia are not able to choose recovery because denial and lack of insight are hallmark symptoms of the illness. People with bulimia are more likely to acknowledge their disorder and enter treatment voluntarily, but they are often unable to interrupt the binge/purge cycle without a major intervention and significant support from others. Insight and motivation are not prerequisites for entering treatment, restoring weight, or stopping unhealthy behaviors. Rather, increased insight and desire to maintain health are natural consequences of full nutrition, improved brain health, abstinence from eating disordered behaviors, and good therapy.

7.) Overemphasizing psychological recovery while underemphasizing physical recovery.

I am not entirely sure why many clinicians work with patients on developing insight and searching for a root cause early in treatment, prior to nutritional restoration and medical stability. We still do not know the causes of many types of cancer, but cancers are treated aggressively as soon as they are diagnosed. A surgeon will operate on a patient to remove a tumor regardless of whether he knows what caused it. It is tragically comical to imagine a doctor and patient searching for the cause of the tumor while it metastasizes.

One of the earliest things we’re taught in our clinical training is how to build a positive, trusting relationship with the patient. If the patient doesn’t trust us and feel comfortable with us, the therapy won’t work. Indeed, psychotherapy research across various disorders and types of treatment has demonstrated that the therapeutic relationship is a very powerful predictor of outcome. However, the therapeutic relationship is more complicated in working with eating disorders because success in therapy requires that the patient do the exact opposite of what her disorder wants: eat more and gain weight. Early in treatment, it often seems as though maintaining a positive therapeutic relationship and helping the patient recover are mutually exclusive. So often, well-meaning eating disorder therapists work hard early on to gain a patient’s trust and build a positive therapeutic relationship in the hopes that the patient will eventually develop the insight and motivation to address her symptoms. While this rapport-building is going on, the patient is becoming sicker, weaker, thinner, more depressed, and more entrenched in her symptoms. Allowing the patient to marinate in malnutrition and continue to engage in her symptoms delays recovery, increases her risk of medical complications, and prevents her from being able to engage in the psychological work of recovery.

The therapeutic relationship is only therapeutic insofar as it facilitates health, growth, and recovery. I have found that my relationships with patients improve naturally, and dramatically, once they are no longer engaging in restricting, bingeing, or purging. I would much rather have an angry, tearful adolescent patient hurl vile words at me as I’m pushing full nutrition and weight restoration than a quiet, sweet adolescent patient who enjoys talking with me as her health declines and her vital signs dwindle.

8.) Overemphasizing physical recovery while underemphasizing psychological recovery.

This is the polar opposite of #7. It happens far less often that #7, but it does happen. Full nutrition, weight restoration, medical stability, and cessation of binge/purge behaviors are absolutely necessary, but not sufficient, for recovery. Restoring physical health is only the beginning of a long, difficult process. The psychological aspect of eating disorders cannot be ignored or minimized. Patients need low-stress environments and lots of support from loved ones. Most patients need psychotherapy to address anxiety, depression, perfectionism, social concerns, body dysmorphia, and other issues that may have contributed to the eating disorder. Therapy can help patients develop the skills they need to manage their emotions, cope with stress, stay healthy, and prevent relapse. Some patients need psychiatric medication to treat comorbid conditions such as ADHD, OCD, or major depression. Fully addressing the patient’s psychological needs, as well as her physical and nutritional needs, gives her the best shot at lasting recovery.

9.) Failure to intervene immediately, and aggressively, at the first sign of weight loss or change in eating or exercise behavior.

The research is very clear on this point: early intervention predicts better prognosis. We should not wait for a teenager to develop full-blown anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa before stepping in to help her. We should not wait for her to drop to 15% below her ideal body weight, miss 3 consecutive menstrual periods, or develop a dangerously low heart rate. We should not wait until she has binged or purged twice a week for three months. Let’s step in when she is 1% below her ideal body weight, when she has missed one menstrual period, when she has purged one meal. Better yet, let’s step in as soon as we notice body image concerns, changes in eating or exercise habits, or excessive preoccupation with body weight and shape.

10.) Using physical appearance or statistically-determined BMI charts as definitive measures of physical or mental health.

There is a common misconception that all people with eating disorders are emaciated. This is not necessarily true. Certainly, individuals in the acute phase of anorexia nervosa are often shockingly thin. However, most people with eating disorders don’t “look sick.” Individuals with bulimia are usually of normal weight. People with anorexia who are at or near their ideal body weight, but still actively struggling with eating-disordered thoughts and feelings, generally “look normal.” Further, it is impossible to tell whether a person is underweight simply by looking at them. Because ideal body weights are highly individualized based upon bone structure, muscle mass, body shape, and weight history, a person may fall within the “ideal” BMI range and still be significantly malnourished or dehydrated. The danger in using physical appearance as a gauge of mental or physical health is that people who “look normal” may be overlooked. Their eating disorders may not be as easily detected and may not be taken as seriously. These patients don’t believe they deserve treatment because they’re not thin enough, not sick enough, not worthy enough. As professionals, we must not fall prey to this distorted thinking.