Treatment for eating disorders goes mobile

A new app lets people monitor how they feel about what they eat and get help.

ByABC News
March 6, 2017, 1:02 PM
A women looks at food on a plate.
A women looks at food on a plate.
aldomurillo/Getty Images

— -- Every day for the past six months, a 29-year-old actress in New York has been logging every meal via an app to monitor what she eats and more importantly how she feels afterward.

"It shows the correlation between the emotion and food," said the actress, who asked to be identified by a pseudonym, Anita. "That's really great."

Anita uses a mobile app called Recovery Record, part of a growing trend of mobile technology designed to help people with eating disorders.

Now the National Eating Disorders Association is hoping to capitalize on that trend by partnering with Recovery Record on a new platform called Renew.

The new platform builds on the app that Anita taps into by allowing users to receive personalized guidance for coping with eating disorder symptoms.

The aim is to reach more people suffering from eating disorders and connect them to the national association's crisis helpline, other tools and treatment.

Claire Mysko, CEO of the National Eating Disorders Association, said many people who may want help with eating disorders have trouble getting it.

"We hear a from a lot of people around the country and around the world," Mysko said. "We often hear of two big barriers to treatment, and those are cost and geography."

To access the Renew program, users first fill out a survey on the eating disorders association's website.

They then get are able to use a chatline via their phones and receive individualized feedback and personalized goals, so that someone who is anorexic doesn't get the same plan as a person who is bulimic.

All the tools are geared toward to giving people suffering from eating disorders positive messages from other app users, help dealing with any urges to purge or avoid food, and easy access to additional help via chat or text.

Mysko says her organization hopes the easily accessible app can reach people who might never seek help in person. Its effectiveness is currently being studied in a 5,000-participant clinical trial out of Stanford University.

"It's another way to provide a mobile-accessible resource," Mysko said of the Renew program. "Certainly if there is an evidence base that shows that just the app alone can help ... that's better than nothing from our standpoint. We really want to get to people to help their symptoms and improve the quality of their life."

As many as 20 million women and 10 million men will at some point have an eating disorder, according to the national association. Many who suffer from eating disorders delay seeking help for years or may never get treatment at all.

In addition to working with Recovery Record for the new app, the eating disorders association has also partnered with Facebook to be included on a list of emergency contacts for people on Facebook Live videos who appear to be suicidal or otherwise in danger.

Experts say some people in need of help may be more comfortable texting with counselors at the eating disorders association than seeking treatment in person.

"It may provide and give them a more confidence in seeking help," said Edward Abramson, a psychologist and professor emeritus at the California State University, Chico.

"Knowing that they are not committing to anything, they can hang up and hit delete whenever they want," said Abramson, who is not involved with the Renew program.

Abramson said that in his experience people with anorexia are often very resistant to treatment, while those with bulimia are more likely to seek care for other conditions like depression or anxiety.

"They are ashamed or guilt-ridden and they know something is wrong and they are not happy with themselves," Abramson said. He said if the Renew program can help people connect with therapists or others who can offer support during an emotional moment, it could be beneficial.

"An emotional upset of some sort might increase the tendency to binge [or relapse]," Abramson said.

Anita, the New York actress, said she has had some form of disordered eating since she was 14, nearly half her life.

It wasn't until last year, when she lost a third of her weight and then suffered cardiac symptoms, that she finally sought treatment for the first time.

"I don't know how I was a walking, breathing person," Anita said. "I honestly don't know how I made it and that sometimes shocks me and scares me."

In the several months since leaving residential treatment last year, Anita said the Recovery Record app has helped her continue to monitor herself and to report accurately to her medical providers on how she’s doing.

She goes to therapy at least once a week. She also uses the app to track what she eats and how she feels about her food. And, she can note in the app if she feels a need to purge.

"This is just a really unique system in place so that my therapist and doctors ... can see how I'm doing," Anita said.

"I feel as though I am able to see life in a way I have never seen it before," she said. "It's like someone who has been blind since birth and they open their eyes and say what is all of this?"