December 16, 2009

Psychotherapy Offers Obesity Prevention for 'At Risk' Teen Girls

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Joseph V. Madia, MD By:

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A team of scientists at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences and the National Institutes of Health have piloted psychotherapy treatment to prevent excessive weight gain in teenager girls deemed "at risk" for obesity.
The study, published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, found girls who participated in interpersonal psychotherapy may be better able to prevent their BMI--body mass index, a ratio of body weight to height, used in this study to determine appropriate weight gain in growing children and teens--from increasing over the course of a year compared to girls who took traditional health education classes.

The research team, led by Dr. Marian Tanofsky-Kraff, targeted youth considered at high risk for obesity because they were already above average weight and because they reported episodes of loss of control eating or binge eating. Both higher weight and loss of control over eating are linked to excessive weight gain in children and young people.

Interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT) focuses on improving interpersonal relationships by targeting the underlying social and interpersonal difficulties that influence individuals to lose control of their eating. The therapy has been shown to help both depressed adults and youth and to help tackle binge eating in adults. In adult studies, decreases in binge eating may lead to modest weight loss and less regain over time compared with those people who continue to binge eat. Thus decreasing binge eating is an attractive target for preventing obesity in at-risk youth.

"We conducted this study to address the dramatically increased rates of obesity in children and adolescents," said Tanofsky-Kraff. "'IPT for binge eating disorder is based on the assumption that binge eating occurs in response to poor social functioning and the consequent negative moods."

Thirty-eight girls, some who had experienced and others who had not experienced loss of control eating, were selected for the trial. They were randomly designated to attend either IPT sessions or standard health education classes currently taught to teenagers. All the girls completed their courses and received follow-up visits for the next year.

Girls who undertook IPT were more likely to stabilize or reduce their BMI than those girls who received the health education classes.

"This pilot study has demonstrated that IPT is both feasible and acceptable to adolescent girls at risk of adult obesity and suggests that it may prevent excess weight gain," concluded Tanofsky-Kraff. "If IPT proves to be effective, we may be able to prevent not only excessive weight gain but [also] the development of related adverse health conditions in a subset of susceptible youth."

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Reviewed by: 
Joseph V. Madia, MD
Review Date: 
September 17, 2010

Last Updated:
December 3, 2013