Dissonance-based program offers hope to women struggling with eating disorders

By Liz Meszaros, MDLinx
Published January 11, 2017

Key Takeaways

For women struggling with eating disorders, researchers at Cornell College, Mount Vernon, IA, have found that completing a 4-week dissonance-based eating disorder program may reduce eating disorder symptoms as well as lower the cardiac risks associated with eating disorder symptoms.

Melinda Green, PhD, MS, associate professor, psychology, Cornell College, and colleagues studied the effects of a 4-week dissonance-based eating disorder program on cardiac risk in 47 women in Eastern Iowa who suffered from eating disorder symptoms. They recruited these subjects via social media, flyers posted in practitioners’ offices, local schools, and announcements on local media.

The dissonance-based program was based on dissonance-based persuasion principles from social psychology to change women’s attitudes and behaviors, critiquing media and societal portrayals of thin women as the ideal.

“Our intervention encourages women to criticize media messages which teach women and girls that we must be thin to be considered beautiful,” said Dr. Green. “We also teach women and girls how to combat societal messages which teach us to define our worth in terms of our appearances.”

In this randomized, controlled, preliminary trial, Dr. Green and fellow researchers assessed eating disorder symptoms, body mass index, and biomarkers of cardiac risk in dissonance and assessment-only control conditions at baseline, post-intervention, and 2-month follow-up. Assessments included mean R wave amplitude, QT interval length, vagal tone, and sympathetic tone with ECG at each time point.

They found that such a program was beneficial for these women, and resulted in fewer eating disorder symptoms, predicting a statistically significant 2 x 3 interaction in mixed factorial MANOVA results. Compared with baseline, both eating disorder symptoms and cardiac risk indices decreased significantly in subjects who underwent dissonance conditioning at post-intervention and at 2-month follow-up evaluations.

“Women who took part in the program showed fewer eating disorder symptoms. Women also showed lower levels of anxiety and fewer negative emotions,” noted Dr. Green. “Women showed higher self-esteem and greater satisfaction with their bodies. They were less likely to idealize a thin body-type and less likely to define their self-worth in terms of their appearance. They were also less likely to show several cardiac risk factors associated with eating disorders.”

For nearly the past decade, Dr. Green has been researching eating disorders, and has discovered that cardiac risks are associated with eating disorders, and identified markers of cardiac risk that become worse when eating disorder symptoms occur and improve with treatment.

“Our work has a direct impact on the lives of women in Eastern Iowa since the program improves the lives of women who are struggling,” she said. “On a national and an international level, our results help to inform the best practices in eating disorder treatment and prevention. We are working alongside leading scientists across the world to improve this treatment and prevention paradigm to make it as effective as possible.”

Dr. Green is currently treating patients with eating disorders through a new online eating disorder prevention and treatment program, and working with Tanager Place, Cedar Rapids, IA, to continue her work. Tanager Place is currently conducting fundraisers for a new eating disorder treatment center. To participate in one of Dr. Green’s trials or to donate to Tanager Place, please contact Dr. Green at mgreen@cornellcollege.edu.

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