Dialectical Behavior Therapy for Binge Eating Disorder

Dialectical Behavior Therapy for Binge Eating Disorder


Journal of Consulting and Oinical Psychology 2001,  Vol. 69,  No. 6, 1061-1065

Copyril!bt  2001 by the American  Psychological  Association, Inc.

0022-006X/OIIS5.00     DOI:  I0.1037/,0022-006X.69.6.1061


Christy  F. Telch  and W. Stewart Agras

Stanford  University  School of Medicine

Marsha  M. Linehan

University of Washington (Seattle)



Dialectical Behavior Therapy for Binge Eating Disorder

This study evaluated the use of dialectical behavior therapy (DBn adapted for  binge eating  disorder (BED). Women with BED (N = 44) were randomly assigned to group DBT or to a wait-list control condition and were administered the Eating Disorder Examination in addition to measures of  weight, mood, and affect regulation at baseline and posttreatment. Treated women evidenced significant im­ provement on measures of  binge eating and eating pathology  compared  with controls, and  89% of  the women receiving DBT had stopped binge eating by the end of treatment.  Abstinence rates were reduced to 56% at the 6-month follow-up. Overall, the findings on the measures of weight, mood, and affect regulation  were not significant. These results support further research into DBT as a treatment for BED.

Binge eating disorder (BED) involves persistent and frequent episodes of uncontrollable binge eating in the absence of regular compensatory behaviors, according to Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (4th ed.; DSM-IV; American Psychi­ atric Association,  1994). Research  has documented  that  BED has a chronic and persistent course, is associated with the  serious health problem of obesity, and is frequently associated with psy­ chiatric comorbidity. Moreover, BED is more common in males than are the other eating disorders (Marcus et al., 1990; Spitzer et al., 1992, 1993; Telch & Stice, 1998; Yanovski, Nelson, Dubbert, &  Spitzer, 1993).

Because binge eating is central to both bulimia nervosa and BED, treatment outcome research for BED has paralleled that of bulimia nervosa. Specifically, cognitive-behavioral treatment (CBT), interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT), and pharmacotherapy have been applied and tested in the treatment of BED (see Cas­ tonguay, Eldredge, & Agras, 1995; Marcus, 1997; Wilfley & Cohen, 1997 for reviews). Generally, treatments tested to date have shown promise, but they do not appear to be effective for as many as half of individuals seeking treatment. CBT has received the most research attention and is based on the theoretical model that chronic dieting in an effort to control weight promotes and maintains binge eating. Therefore, CBT focuses on decreasing dietary restraint and establishing regular, healthy eating patterns in addition to combating maladaptive beliefs regarding eating and weight.

Christy F. Telch and W. Stewart Agras, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Stanford University School of Medicine; Marsha M. Linehan, Department of Psychology, University of Washington (Seattle). This study was supported by National Institutes of Health Grant MH54641. We give our sincere appreciation to Brenda Brownlow, cothera­ pist, and Molly  McMillen,  research  assistant,  for their valuable contribu­tions to this research.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to  W. Stewart Agras, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Stan­ ford University School of Medicine, 401 Quarry Road, Room 1326, Stan­ ford,  California 94305-5722.

An alternative model of binge eating postulates that binge eating serves to regulate affect (Heatherton & Baumeister,  1991; Polivy & Herman, 1993). The primary hypothesis is that individuals who binge eat have difficulty regulating negative emotions and try to cope with their emotional distress by binge eating. The  binge eating temporarily relieves the aversive negative emotional states, thereby reinforcing binge eating. There exists a considerable amount of research evidence in support of the affect regulation model of  binge eating  (see Polivy & Herman,  1993, for a review of this literature). For example, two separate laboratory experi­ ments demonstrated that inducing a negative mood in women with BED led to binge eating and that the binge eating led to a reduction in negative emotional arousal (Agras & Telch, 1998;  Telch  & Agras, 1996).

Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT; Linehan, 1993a, 1993b), a treatment found to be effective for borderline personality disorder (Linehan, Armstrong, Suarez, Allmond, & Heard, 1991), specifi­ cally targets emotion regulation by teaching adaptive skills to enhance patients’ emotion regulation  capabilities.  We  adapted DBT skills training for use with BED in an uncontrolled treatment trial (Telch, Agras, & Linehan, 2000) to provide preliminary  data on the value of this treatment for BED. Eleven women with BED received group DBT skills training that consisted of a 20-session manualized treatment adapted from Linehan’s (1993a, 1993b) treatment manuals. There were no dropouts from treatment, and 82% of the women were abstinent from binge eating at end of treatment. Improvement in binge eating was maintained at the 3-month  and 6-month  posttreatment follow-up.

These results supported continuing to the next phase of treat­ ment research and conducting the present efficacy study, a ran­ domized controlled trial comparing  DBT adapted for BED versus  a wait-list  control group.



Participants were recruited through newspaper advertisements that of­ fered free treatment for binge eating through a Stanford University research study. Inclusion criteria were that participants had to  be female,  between the ages of 18 and 65 years, and that they met full DSM-N research diagnostic  criteria  for  BED. Exclusion  criteria  were (a) current involvement in psychotherapy, weight loss treatment, or use of psychotropic medications; (b) current substance abuse or dependence; (c) current sui­ cidality or psychosis; and (d) pregnancy (because weight was an outcome measure). We screened 465 individuals by telephone, and 377 were ex­ cluded primarily because they did not meet full DSM-IV research diag­ nostic criteria for BED or because they were not interested in, or available for, the study. The remaining 88 women were scheduled for a clinical interview to further assess eligibility for study participation, and l l women did not attend this appointment. The study was described in detail and we obtained written informed consent to participate, prior to conducting the clinical interviews. Of the 77 interviews conducted, 17 women did not meet BED diagnostic criteria and 16 women decided they were not inter­ ested in, or not available to continue in, the study. Forty-four participants met study entry criteria and were randomly assigned to either DBT  skills­ training  treatment (n  = 22)   or   a  wait-list  control  condition (n  = 22). Ten participants dropped from the study following randomu.ation (4 in the treatment group and 6 in the wait-list condition). Two of the women assigned to treatment dropped before treatment began, and 2 women dropped before the third treatment session.



The participants in this study were assessed at baseline and after com­ pleting 20 weeks of treatment. Those assigned to treatment also completed an abbreviated assessment at 3 and 6 montbs following treatment. The follow-up interview assessed binge frequency with the appropriate section of the Eating Disorders Examination (EDE; Fairburn & Cooper, 1993), and recorded skills usage during the follow-up period. The structured clinical interviews were conducted by experienced assessors trained specifically in the administration of the interview. We attempted to keep assessors un­ aware of group assignment; however, the blind was often broken by the patient.

Structured interviews.    We  interviewed participants at pretreatment us­ing the SCID I and II (Spitz.er, Williams, Gibbon, & First, 1990a, 1990b) to assess both the diagnosis of BED and of comorbid psychopathology. We also assessed participants before and after treatment with the EDE, which yields eating disorder diagnoses and provides a measure of both the number of days and episodes of binge eating that occurred over the past 28 days. Only episodes that met the EDE definition of an objective binge were used in this study. The EDE also yields subscales that measure the severity of dietary restraint, concern about eating, concern about weight, and concern about shape. The reliability of the EDE assessment was based on a second assessor’s scoring a 15% sample of audiotaped interviews. Inter­ rater reliability for all the above measures exceeded .90.

Questionnaires. Questionnaires used in this study included the Binge Eating Scale (Gormally, Black, Daston, & Rardin, 1982), a measure of severity of binge eating problems; the Emotional Eating Scale (EES; Arnow, Kenardy, & Agras, 1995), which assesses the extent to which specific negative emotional states (anger, anxiety, and depression) prompt an individual to feel an urge to eat; and the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale (Rosenberg, 1979), a measure of beliefs and attitudes regarding general self-worth. Three measures of affect and affect regulation were used also: the Beck Depression Inventory (BDI; Beck, Ward. Mendelson, Mock, & Erbaugh, 1961), a measure of depressed mood; the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS; Watson, Clark, & Tellegen, 1988),  providing relatively pure markers of either positive affect or negative affect; and the Negative Mood Regulation Scale (Catanzaro & Mearns, 1990), which measures the expectancy that a behavior or cognition will alleviate a negative mood state.



Treatment was delivered by two female psychologists (Christy F. Telch and a postdoctoral fellow) over a 20-week course, with each weekly session lasting 2 hr, using a manual adapted from Linehan’s DBT for borderline personality disorder treatment manuals (Linehan 1993a, 1993b). A detailed description of the treatment can be found in Wiser and Telch (1999) and in Telch et al. (2000).1 The first two treatment sessions provided a rationale for the treatment and the goals of treatment during which the therapist elicited verbal and written commitment to these goals. Adaptive emotional regulation skills were taught in three modules: mind­ fulness skills (Sessions 3–6), emotion regulation skills (Sessions 7-12), and distress tolerance skills (Sessions 13–18). The last two sessions con­ centrated on a review of the skills taught, and each group member devel­ oped an individualized plan for continued practice of the skills and for using the skills to regulate emotions instead of binge eating. Mindfulness skills provided participants with the capability to nonjudgmentally observe and describe their moment-to-moment emotional experiences, thoughts, and action urges. Emotion regulation skills taught participants to under­ stand their emotions and to decrease vulnerability to negative emotions, as well as to increase positive emotions and change specific emotional states (e.g., fear and anxiety). Distress tolerance skills taught adaptive and effec­ tive means for contending with the inevitable stresses and pain of life and included skills for facilitating the acceptance of reality. All treatment sessions were audiotaped. and if a participant missed a session she was expected to listen to the tape of the missed session before the next group.


Data Analysis

Because the frequency of binge days and binge episodes were not nonnally distributed, a square root transfonnation was used for these measures. We compared baseline measures by using at-test or chi-square analysis to determine whether there were any biases that occurred during randomization. Similarly, participants who dropped from treatment were compared with those who completed treatment. Treatment outcome was analyzed by using a one-way analysis of covariance, with the baseline measure as the covariate and the treatment condition as the independent variable. The alpha level for all statistical tests was set at .05. Effect sizes were calculated as the difference in the posttest means divided by the pooled standard deviation (Cohen, 1988).




The mean age of participants was 50 years (SD = 9.1); 94%  were Caucasian, 47% were married, 35% were divorced, and 18% had never married. Over 70% had completed college, and all had graduated  from high school. The mean  body mass index  was 36.4 (SD = 6.6), indicating an obese sample. The reported  onset  of binge eating was at 20.9 years of age (SD = 11.7), and the mean duration  of  binge eating  was  29.2  years  (SD   = 11.7). Lifetime psychopathology included major depression (38%), anxiety disor­ der (35%), psychotic disorder not otherwise specified (3%), bu­ limia nervosa (6%), and substance abuse or dependence (27%). Current psychopathology included major depression (9%), anxiety disorder (18%), and personality disorder (27%). Over three quar­ ters of the sample had received psychological treatment in the past.

Height  and  weight.    Height  was  measured  before  treatment   with a stadiometer, and weight was assessed with the participant in lightweight clothing with shoes removed, on a balance beam scale.

1 The  DBT  for  BED  treatment  manual  used  in  this  study  is  available from  W.  Stewart  Agras.


Effects  of Treatment

Ten participants (4 in the treatment group, and 6 in the wait-list condition) did not complete the study. Dropouts were significantly younger than nondropouts (41.0 ± 10.5 years  vs.  50.0  ±  9.2 years), (42)  = 2.4, p <  .04. Because  this  was an initial study of a  new  treatment,  the analyses  were restricted  to those who com­pleted treatment (see Table 1 and Table 2). There were no signif­ icant differences  between  groups on any of the baseline measures.

Significant effects were found at the end of treatment  for both binge   days,  F(l,   31)   =  41.3,  p   <  .001;  and   episodes,  F(l,31)  = 39.9, p < .001. Of the DBT group, 89% were abstinent (i.e.,no binge eating in the past 4 weeks), compared with 12.5% of controls,  x2(1, =  30)  =   19.8, < .001.

Those receiving treatment had significantly lower scores on the following  EDE subscales:  Weight  Concerns,  F(l, 31)  = 5.9, p <.02; Shape  Concerns,  F(l, 31)  = 4.9, <  .03; Eating Concerns, F(l, 31) = 20.9, p < .001. There were no significant differences between  groups  on dietary  restraint.  Participants  receiving treat­ment reported lower scores on the Anger subscale of the EES, compared with controls, F(l, 30) = 4.2, p < .05, indicating  less urge to eat  when  experiencing anger.



All 18 women who completed treatment were assessed at the 3- and 6-month follow-ups.  At  3 months,  67%  were abstinent,  and at 6 months 56% were abstinent. At the 6-month follow-up, the majority of participants (89%) continued to practice skills taught during treatment, practicing an average of 3.6 different skills per week on an average of 4 days week. Three  participants  were treated with either psychotherapy or medication for a major de­ pressive episode during the follow-up period, and 1 enrolled in a very-low-calorie  diet program.


Treatment  of Wait-List Participants

Fourteen individuals on the wait list accepted the invitation to participate  in  treatment.  Of  these,  4  dropped  out  of  treatment (29%). For those completing treatment, 90% were abstinent at the end of treatment, 80% at the 3-month follow-up, and 67% at the 6-month follow-up.



The present study was a controlled evaluation of DBT modified for the treatment of BED. The treatment was based on the hypoth­ esis that binge eating serves to regulate affect. The new skills taught were aimed at enhancing adaptive affect regulation, thus reducing  the  need to binge eat.

The present findings demonstrate that the group DBT skills training was better than no treatment  in eliminating  binge eating. Of participants in the DBT group, 89% (16 of 18)  had stopped binge eating for at least 4 weeks prior to the end of treatment, compared with just 12.5% (2 of 16) of controls. Confidence in our findings and in the efficacy of DBT skills training for BED is enhanced by the fact that a similar abstinence rate of 82% occurred in our uncontrolled trial (Telch et al., 2000). However, abstinence rates  were reduced  to 56%  at the 6-month follow-up.

It is unclear how DBT worked to reduce binge eating.  The results on the PANAS and BDI offer no support for the hypothesis that the treatment worked by reducing negative affect or by im­ proving treated patients’ expectancies for negative mood regula­ tion. Because there was not a comparison with an active treatment in this study, it is possible that the effects on eating pathology were due to nonspecific therapeutic elements rather than to the specific elements of DBT. This may explain the lack of support for the primary  hypothesis concerning  mechanisms of action.

However, treated women reported significantly lower scores on the EES Anger subscale compared with controls at posttest. The p values for the EES Anxiety and Depression subscales were not statistically significant. These findings suggest that treatment may work by reducing the urge or impulse to eat when experiencing negative emotions  rather than by  working directly on the  affect.

The modified DBT used in this study appears to have been an acceptable treatment on the basis of the dropout rate of I8% (2 of the  4  dropouts  withdrew  before  treatment  began).  In  addition, attendance at group sessions was reasonably good, with all but 1 woman attending 70% or more of  the 20 group sessions.

Several limitations of the current study warrant mention. Be­ cause of the treatment versus wait list design, we can conclude only that the DBT skills treatment is better than no treatment. Hence, it is possible that the results obtained were due to nonspe­ cific factors rather than to the specific treatment components of DBT. This study included only women, and the mean age of the sample was 50 years old, perhaps limiting generalizability of findings. Additionally, our sample size was relatively small. Fi­ nally, the follow-up period of 6 months was brief given the chronicity  of binge eating problems.

From a clinical viewpoint, it appears that DBT as used in this study may be at least as effective and acceptable as CBT for individuals with BED. The results also underline the utility of a treatment for BED that does not focus directly on eating behaviors, similar to the findings for IPT. Given the marked procedural differences between CBT and DBT, it seems likely that differential predictors of outcome might be identified, which would allow more precise triage of individuals into one or the other treatment. For example, DBT may be particularly useful in individuals with higher levels of negative affect, and CBT may be more useful for those with high levels of dietary restraint. These questions should be addressed in a larger scale trial comparing DBT and CBT. It also appears that more attention needs to be given to relapse prevention, perhaps by extending the last few sessions of treatment over a longer  time period.


Table l


Table 2



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Received March 6, 2000 Revision  received January  I, 2001

Accepted  May  11, 2001 •


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