My original eating disorder training began in 1991 with learning Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) for bulimia nervosa (BN) under G. Terence Wilson, the co-author with Dr. Christopher G. Fairburn, of the treatment approach that preceded CBT-E. In 2010 I underwent training in Family Based Treatment (FBT) for Adolescent Anorexia Nervosa (AN) and became certified in FBT by the Training Institute for Child and Adolescent Eating Disorders.
CBT is the most effective treatment for adults with bulimia nervosa. It is an individual approach that focuses on reducing dieting and changing unhelpful thinking patterns that maintain the behavior. FBT is the most successful treatment for adolescents with AN. FBT encourages parental control and management of eating disorder behaviors, but does not address distorted thinking regarding shape and weight. Over the last five years, there has been no clear guideline on which treatment I should offer to adolescents with BN.
This changed in September 2015 with the online publication of “Randomized Clinical Trial of Family-Based Treatment and Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Adolescent Bulimia Nervosa” by Daniel Le Grange, Ph.D., James Lock, M.D., W. Stewart Agras, M.D., Susan Bryson, M.A., M.S., and Booil Jo, Ph.D. which has been published in the November Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.
In this study, researchers at the University of Chicago and Stanford randomly assigned 130 teens between the ages of 12 and 18 years old with BN to receive either CBT-A (CBT adapted for adolescents) or FBT-BN (FBT for adolescent bulimia). The teens received 18 outpatient sessions over the course of six months. Assessments were conducted at end of treatment and at six and twelve month follow-ups. After the completion of the treatment, bulimia abstinence rates were 39% for FBT patients and 20% for CBT patients. By the six-month follow up, these rates rose to 44% for FBT patients and 25% for CBT patients. These differences were statistically significant. By 12 month follow up, while the bulimia abstinence rate continued to rise for both populations, the difference was no longer statistically significant.
The researchers concluded,
FBT-BN is likely a better initial treatment option compared to CBT-A for those adolescents with clinically significant bulimia behaviors. FBT-BN leads to quicker and higher sustained abstinence rates that are maintained up to 12 months posttreatment…It appears that, similar to their adolescent peers with AN, adolescents with BN can benefit from an approach that actively involves their families in the treatment process. However, given that there were no statistical differences between these 2 treatments at 12 months post-treatment, CBT-A remains a viable alternative treatment for this patient population, especially for those families who would prefer a largely individual treatment or when there is no family available to be of help.
In interviews about the study, Dr. Le Grange said, “Parents need to be actively involved in the treatment of kids and teens with eating disorders.”
This study reinforces my experience. Although I have employed CBT for bulimia in working with adolescents, rarely do adolescents fully embrace the work required on their part for CBT to be successful. I have found it more effective to use FBT with their family and to supplement with some individual CBT if the adolescent appears ready and motivated for additional independent work. Bingeing and purging are serious symptoms carrying the risk of heart and esophageal problems and death. Thus administering a treatment that brings a faster rate of remission of symptoms is a priority.