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Stanford eating disorder program works wonders

Online program shows that populations at significant risk for anorexia and bulimia can make big strides through online education program.
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Written by ZDNet Editors on

Stanford's online program for female eating disorders - "Student Bodies" - is reporting exceptional results, The Washington Post reports.

Stanford researchers, who followed 480 female California college students for up to two years, report that the eight-week Internet-based program reduced the development of eating disorders in women at high risk.

"This study shows that innovative intervention can work," said Thomas Insel, director of the National Insitute of Mental Health, which funded the study; its findings appeared in the August issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry.

Experts call the study "a very significant piece of research" that "gives every indication of being able to reduce important risk factors." Few programs "can hold a candle to these results."

Through fliers posted at colleges in San Francisco and San Diego, the team recruited 480 women whose average age was nearly 21 and whose average body mass index (BMI) was 23.7 -- in the normal range, equivalent to a 5-foot-4 woman who weighs 138 pounds.

Half were randomly assigned to "Student Bodies," which included weekly online sessions about healthy eating, journal keeping and an interactive discussion monitored by a psychologist, as well as information about body image. The other half were assigned to a control group and permitted to go through the program once the evaluation was complete.

A two-year follow-up revealed no overall difference in the development of eating disorders between the control group and Student Bodies participants, Taylor said. But it did find significant differences in two high-risk subgroups: students who were overweight and those who were already engaged in behaviors that can presage a full-blown disorder, such as excessive exercise, self-induced vomiting and use of diet pills or laxatives.

Of overweight students who went through Student Bodies, none developed an eating disorder compared to 12 percent of the control group. And among women who had started behaviors like self-induced vomiting, 14 percent of the San Francisco participants developed a full-blown eating disorder, compared to 30 percent of the control group.

"What's really novel about this program is that it's computer-administered and easy to disseminate," psychologist Eric Stice said. "That's what makes it tantalizing."

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