To Your Health
September, 2023 (Vol. 17, Issue 09)
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When Unhealthy Is Healthy

By Editorial Staff

There are few circumstances in life when something considered unhealthy could have a health benefit, but researchers have found one such circumstance, and it's an important one. For kids with eating disorders, exposure therapy to feared foods can benefit their recovery. Let's see why candy bars, pizza and the like might have a health benefit.

Among teens (average age: 14) participating in a partial hospitalization program for eating disorders, researchers exposed each patient to a feared food per day. The program spanned eight weeks, five days per week. Feared foods included items like cookies, pizza, desserts, pancakes, and other foods that created intense anxiety in patients with an eating disorder. The goal: to teach the teens that these foods, which are commonly viewed as unhealthy, can be incorporated into the diet occasionally as part of a healthy, fulfilling life.

At the conclusion of the eight-week program, the research team found that distress relative to the exposure foods declined over time (between sessions, not necessarily during a session in which they were exposed to a particular food), which predicted favorable treatment outcomes such as weight gain (many of the patients were underweight, suffering from binge eating disorder, anorexia or bulimia); as well as improvements on several tests designed to assess their attitudes toward eating and food in general. The researchers published their findings in the International Journal of Eating Disorders.

For many people, the relationship with food is complicated, even if not suffering from an eating disorder. With so much emphasis on health – and at the same time, so much availability of unhealthy foods, what's one to do? Step #1, as this study suggests, is recognizing that no food is truly unhealthy; eating it too frequently or avoiding it even when you want it occasionally – now that's the unhealthy manifestation. Talk to your doctor for more information.