The leading evidence-based treatment for adults with an eating disorder is a specific form of cognitive behaviour therapy. This is a one-to-one treatment that focuses on the characteristic disturbances in eating habits and attitudes to shape and weight. It was developed by Professor Christopher Fairburn as a treatment for bulimia nervosa and in this form it has been the subject of numerous clinical trials. It was the first psychological treatment (for any mental disorder) to be strongly endorsed by UK’s independent and highly regarded National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE).
In the early 2000s the treatment was modified to make it suitable for all forms of eating disorder (Fairburn, Cooper and Shafran, 2003). The resulting “transdiagnostic” treatment, termed enhanced cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT-E), has been tested across the full range of eating disorders in studies emanating from the UK, Australia, Denmark, Italy and the USA.
There is some variability in the response rates obtained in the different studies. This may be due to differences in the patient samples, however the quality of the treatment provided may well be another factor. It is striking that the best results were obtained from studies that ensured CBT-E was delivered well. These are the studies that took place in the UK (Oxford and Leicester), Denmark (Copenhagen) and Italy (Verona).
If one focuses on studies in which CBT-E was delivered well, the evidence suggests that with patients who are not significantly underweight (the great majority of adult cases) about two-thirds of those who start treatment make a full recovery. This recovery appears to be well-maintained. Many of the remainder have also improved but not to this extent. The response rate is somewhat lower in patients who are substantially underweight and fewer complete treatment.
As matters stand, the research findings may be summarised as follows:
- CBT-E has been shown to be suitable for all forms of eating disorder encountered in adults (Fairburn et al, 2009; Fairburn et al, 2013). This is not true of any other treatment
- CBT-E has also been shown to be effective in the treatment of younger patients (Dalle Grave et al, 2013). It is therefore a potential alternative to the leading evidence-based treatment for this age group, family-based therapy
- CBT-E may be used in inpatient and day-patient settings
- Focusing on the studies in which CBT-E was well-delivered, CBT-E has been shown to be more effective than two other widely used treatments
- In a direct comparison with a leading alternative psychological treatment for adults, interpersonal psychotherapy or IPT, CBT-E was found to be more potent (Fairburn et al, 2015)
- It has been found to be more effective than 100 sessions of psychoanalytic psychotherapy delivered over two years (Poulsen et al, 2014)
- Therapists need to receive training in CBT-E in order to obtain optimal effects
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