August 11, 2006

Internet-Based Program Can Help Women with Eating Disorders

young woman at her computer

Young women who suffer from eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorder often develop their eating disorder around the time they begin college. A new study has found that an eight-week, Internet-based intervention may help college-age women at risk.

Previous studies have shown that an Internet-based intervention can be effective in reducing body dissatisfaction and excessive weight concerns. Dr. C. Barr Taylor of Stanford University and his colleagues set out to do the first long-term, large-scale study of such a program. Funded by NIH's National Institute of Mental Health, the researchers recruited women between 18 and 30 years of age in the San Francisco Bay area and San Diego. During preliminary interviews, they identified 480 as being at risk for developing an eating disorder.

Half the women completed an eight-week, Internet-based, structured program called "Student Bodies," which was effective in previous small-scale short-term studies. The program included reading and other assignments such as keeping an online body-image journal. The participants also took part in an online discussion group moderated by clinical psychologists. Participants were interviewed immediately following the end of the online program and then annually for up to three years to determine their attitudes toward their weight and shape, and to measure the onset of any eating disorders.

The results, published on August 7 in the Archives of General Psychiatry, show that the Internet-based intervention significantly reduced weight and shape concerns in women who were at high risk for developing an eating disorder. Among the women in the intervention group who were overweight, none developed an eating disorder after two years, while 11.9% of the women in the control group who were overweight developed an eating disorder. Of those with symptoms of an eating disorder at the start of the program (such as self-induced vomiting, laxative use, diuretic use, diet pill use or driven exercise) 10.1% in the intervention group developed an eating disorder within two years, compared to 19% of those in the control group.

"This is an effective program that may decrease the incidence of eating disorders," said Dr. Taylor. "I am enthusiastic that this program will be successful if it is disseminated by colleges."

The authors caution, however, that the study was limited by the need for participants to report their own history and progress. Further testing of the Internet-based intervention also needs to be completed in a more diverse group, to include women from different geographical regions, age groups and motivation levels.

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