Therapy hope for eating disorders
More people with eating disorders could benefit from "talking therapies" which aim to release them from obsessive feelings, say UK researchers.
They said a specially-created form of cognitive behavioural therapy might work in four out of five cases.
A 154-person American Journal of Psychiatry study, by the University of Oxford, found most achieved "complete and lasting" improvement.
At present, the treatment is officially recommended only for bulimia patients.
Now, for the first time, we have a single treatment which can be effective at treating the majority of cases
Professor Christopher Fairburn
Some statistics suggest that more than a million people in the UK are affected by some kind of eating disorder, the best known types being anorexia nervosa and bulimia. Approximately 40% of those with eating disorders have bulimia, 20% have anorexia, and the remainder have "atypical disorders", which can combine both bulimic and anorexic-type symptoms.
The National Institute of Clinical Excellence has backed cognitive behavioural therapy for bulimia, but Professor Christopher Fairburn, the Wellcome Trust funded researcher who led the project, believes his version could help many more people.
His study focused on bulimia and "atypical" patients, but excluded those with anorexia.
The technique works using a series of counselling sessions which help the person involved to realise the links between their emotions and behaviour, and work out ways to change what they are doing.
Professor Fairburn developed two versions specifically for people with eating disorders, one which focused completely on the eating problems, and another, which took a wider view of not only the eating disorder, but also problems with self-esteem which might be contributing to it.
Both treatments involved 50-minute outpatient sessions repeated once a week for 20 weeks.
Afterwards, the researchers found most patients had responded well, and that this improvement was maintained over the next year - a time during which relapse into eating disorder is most likely to occur.
Two-thirds made a "complete and lasting" response, with many of the other third showing substantial improvement.
Although the study did not specifically include people with anorexia, a second study, currently underway, is showing promising results in this group.
Professor Fairburn said: "Now, for the first time, we have a single treatment which can be effective at treating the majority of cases, without the need for patients to be admitted into hospital.
"It is increasingly being used across the NHS, and has the potential to improve the lives of the hundreds of thousands of people living with eating disorders."
Susan Muir is one person who says that CBT techniques have helped free her of a long-term eating disorder.
The 39-year-old, from Chesterfield, used diet and exercise to shed 13 stone, but found that once this had happened, she found herself binge-eating then obsessively exercising.
"The CBT helped me realise what I was doing, and turned those irrational thoughts into rational ones.
"It really helped me deal with my self-esteem problems and made me feel very positive."
Susan Ringwood, the chief executive of Beat, the eating disorders campaign group, said: "This research shows that people can benefit from psychological therapy even at a very low weight.
"There has been so little research into eating disorders and anorexia in particular, and this has really added to our knowledge in a challenging field."
Dr Alan Cohen, mental health spokesperson for the Royal College of GPs, welcomed the research.
He said: "Access to this service, and appropriate training for therapists to deliver this new form of treatment, is very important."