Research Suggests Family Based Therapy Is More Effective In Treating Bulimia Nervosa

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Recent research from the University of California, San Francisco indicates that contrary to traditional practice, adolescents diagnosed with bulimia nervosa are likely to recovery faster when family is more deeply involved in the treatment process.

In a press release from the university, Daniel Le Grange, professor from UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital, says “parents need to be actively involved in the treatment of kids and teens with eating disorders.”

He continues, “This study shows definitively that parental engagement is imperative for a successful outcome of adolescents with bulimia nervosa. It goes counter to the training that physicians receive in psychiatry, which teaches that parents are to blame for bulimia and therefore should be omitted from treatment.”

Bulimia is an eating disorder characterized by recurrent episodes of uncontrolled overeating, referred to as binge episodes. These episodes are then followed by compensatory behaviors intended to prevent weight gain, such as self-induced vomiting, laxative or diuretic abuse, fasting, or over-exercising.

Approximately two percent of teens suffer from the condition every year in the United States, with most cases developing during adolescence. Due to a number of factors, including the naturally secretive nature of the disorder and the fact that many adolescents with bulimia maintain a healthy weight, the condition is often not recognized for years.

For the study, the researchers compared two different treatments on 130 adolescents between the ages of 12 and 18 with bulimia nervosa. One group received cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), while the other received family based therapy (FBT).

CBT is intended to focus on the individual patient, highlighting skills training which helps patients gain a more thorough understanding of themselves and the irrational thoughts that contribute to binging and purging.  The intention is that by recognizing and confronting these irrational thoughts, the individuals can change their behavior and begin recovery.

On the other hand, FBT is designed to work with parents to understand the severity of the disorder and learn how to best provide support for their children on a daily basis to keep them medically healthy and promote healthy habits.

According to the findings, published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry participants in FBT showed notably higher abstinence rates from binging and purging than those who were treated using individual cognitive based therapy.

“These findings are quite clear […] FBT is the treatment of choice for adolescents with bulimia nervosa, because it works quicker and faster and maintains its impact over time. CBT could be a useful alternative if FBT were not available, but it needs to be recognized that it doesn’t work quite as fast and takes time to catch up,” said Le Grange.

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