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Study: Good Feelings About Losing Weight May Backfire, Contribute to Anorexia

Rutgers psychologist sees potential for redirecting such positive feelings toward healthier behaviors

SELBY-RC-Award-Anorexia
A study led by Rutgers Assistant Professor of Psychology Edward Selby has found that anorexia nervosa may be linked to “positive emotions” people with the eating disorder feel when they first begin losing weight.

It’s long been a challenge to treat people with anorexia nervosa, but a Rutgers University professor says a new study of women with the eating disorder is pointing to new strategies for dealing with the disorder.

The study led by Assistant Professor of Psychology Edward Selby has found that many women with the eating disorder are motivated in part by “positive emotions” they feel as a result of activities intended to help them lose weight.

These positive emotions could be beneficial if they are redirected toward healthy activities, Selby said.

Eating disorders are associated with the highest death rate of any mental illness, adding to the urgency of research into new treatment approaches.

Selby said most research has focused on negative emotions experienced by people with the disorder.

But some previous studies had suggested there was more than negativity driving anorexic behavior, so Selby led a team of researchers in designing a study examining the impact of positive feelings experienced by those with anorexia.

“There’s a lot of evidence that women, when they first start losing weight, have a lot of positive experiences with it,” said Selby, noting that women with anorexia frequently receive compliments from friends and family when they first start losing weight. The positive emotions continue even when the behavior is harmful.

The study focused on 118 women treated for anorexia -- roughly 90 percent of people with eating disorders are women. The study was conducted between 2008 and 2011 in the upper Midwest, with eight other researchers participating. The research was published in an article titled “Nothing Tastes as Good as Thin Feels” in the newest issue of the journal Clinical Psychological Science.

The researchers used mobile devices to ask participants between the ages of 18 and 58 about their emotions. They found that women who felt positive emotions were more likely to later engage in harmful behavior like vomiting, excessive exercise, using laxatives, and frequently checking their weight and body fat level.

In addition, the study found, these women were less likely to distinguish between the positive emotions resulting from some experiences and those that resulted from harmful behavior.

Selby said this research suggests that patients may benefit from treatment that emphasizes activities that aren’t related to weight loss but lead to similar positive emotions.

For example, instead of restricting those with anorexia from exercising, they might find activities like yoga that aren’t focused on weight loss.

“That would be ideal, finding an activity that is enjoyable, that still involves physical activity, but doesn’t burn calories in the same way that running or weight-lifting might,” Selby said.

He commented further on this in a post about the research on the Psychology Today website.

“By channeling the motivations for weight loss activities into new activities that facilitate autonomy, competency, and relatedness, patients can start the formation of a new identity that’s not so focused on shape, weight, and nutritional control,” Selby wrote.

Selby emphasized that much more research is needed. “It’s important to focus on the issue of anorexia, because it’s currently one of our most difficult-to-treat disorders,” he said.

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