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).
In the early 2000s we modified the treatment to make it suitable for all forms of eating disorder (Fairburn, Cooper and Shafran, 2003). The resulting “transdiagnostic” treatment, termed enhanced CBT (CBT-E), has been tested across the full range of eating disorders in studies emanating from the UK, Australia, Denmark, Germany, Italy and the USA.
There is some variability in the response rate obtained in the different studies. This may be due to differences in the patient samples but the quality of the treatment provided may well be another factor. 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. 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:
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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