Grenon, R., Carlucci, S., Brugnera, A., Schwartze, D., … Tasca, G. A. (2018). Psychotherapy for eating disorders: A meta-analysis of direct comparisons, Psychotherapy Research, DOI: 10.1080/10503307.2018.1489162
Eating disorders can cause a great deal of physical and mental impairment because of the severity of the symptoms and because of comorbid conditions like depression, anxiety, substance use, and others. Anorexia nervosa (AN) occurs in about 0.5% of the population, bulimia nervosa (BN) occurs in about 1.5% of the population, and binge-eating disorder (BED) occurs in about 3.5% of the population. Treatment guidelines include both cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT) as front line interventions for BN and BED. However, results from previous meta analyses of psychological treatments for eating disorders were confounded by not focusing exclusively on randomized controlled trials, mixing studies of adult and adolescent samples, combining an array of outcomes rather than separately reporting primary (eating disorder symptoms) and secondary (interpersonal problems, depression) outcomes, and not distinguishing between bona fide psychotherapies (like CBT, IPT, psychodynamic therapy, and others) from non-bona fide treatments (like self help, behavioral weight loss supportive counseling). Grenon and colleagues conducted a meta analysis of psychotherapies for eating disorders to examine if: psychotherapy is effective compared to a wait list, if bona fide psychotherapy and non-bona fide treatment differ in outcomes, and if one type of psychotherapy (i.e., CBT) was more effective than other bona fide psychotherapies (like IPT, behavior therapy, psychodynamic therapy, dialectical behavior therapy). Their meta analysis included 35 randomized controlled trials of direct comparisons. Psychotherapy was significantly more effective than a wait-list control at post treatment, so that 53.89% of patients were abstinent of symptoms after psychotherapy compared to only 8.92% who were abstinent in the wait-list group. Bona fide psychotherapies (51% abstinent) were significantly more effective than non-bona fide treatments (40% abstinent) at post treatment, and dropout in bona fide psychotherapies (17.5%) was significantly lower than in non-bona fide treatment (29.1%). Further, the difference between CBT and other bona fide psychotherapies was not significant.
Psychotherapy for eating disorders are effective for patients with BN or BED. There were too few studies of those with AN to come to any conclusions about their treatment. Patients with BN or BED are best treated with a bona fide psychotherapy that involves face to face psychological therapy like CBT, IPT, psychodynamic therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, or behavior therapy. Non-bona fide treatments like self help, behavioral weight loss, and supportive counseling should only be used as an adjunct to bona fide psychotherapy for eating disorders.