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 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 Clinical Excellence (NICE).
It is striking that the best results have been obtained from studies that have ensured that CBT-E was delivered well. These are the studies from 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 that appears to be well-maintained.
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:
- It has been found to be more effective than the leading alternative psychological treatment for adults, interpersonal psychotherapy or IPT (unpublished results)
- It has been found to be more effective than 100 sessions of psychoanalytic psychotherapy delivered over two years (Poulsen et al, 2014)
One other conclusion appears warranted. This is that therapists need to receive training in CBT-E in order to obtain optimal effects.
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