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Emotional Freedom Techniques in the Treatment of Unhealthy Eating Behaviors and Related Psychological Constructs In Adolescents: a Randomized Controlled Pilot Trial

Citation: Stapleton, P, Chatwin, H, William, M, Hutton, A, Pain, A., Porter, B, Sheldon, T. EXPLORE, March/April 2016, Vol. 12, No. 2. Full paper.

Abstract

Context: In Australia and throughout much of the world, rates of obesity continue to climb,  as do the prevalence of eating disorders, particularly in adolescents. Psychological consequences of childhood obesity include low self-esteem, depression, body dissatisfaction, and social maladjustment (Young-Hymanetal.,2012).

Objective and Intervention: This feasibility study sought to examine the impact of a six-week Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT)group treatment program upon eating behaviours, self-esteem, compassion, and psychological symptoms. Design:  Forty-four students were randomly allocated to either the EFT group or the waitlist control group.

Results: Results revealed a delayed effect for both groups at post-intervention, with improved eating habits, self-esteem, and compassion at follow-up. Findings provide preliminary support for EFT as an effective treatment strategy for increasing healthy eating behaviours and improving associated weight-related psychopathology.

Craig’s Notes

Researchers note that obesity in children and adults is on the rise worldwide, and that it can cause low self-esteem and other psychological issues, particularly in adolescents. While many interventions and studies have been done involving improved education around exercise and food, the success rate has been only about 20%, and the results are often not sustained. Thus, researchers found a need to take into account psychological factors when working with this issue.

Although several previous studies have shown EFT intervention to be effective for weight loss and reduction of food cravings and addictions in adults, this is one of the first to target children, specifically adolescents. The main goal of this study was to develop a clinical protocol and framework for an effective, enduring, and low-cost intervention program for increasing healthful lifestyle practices among 14- and 15-year olds. It proposed to assess whether frequency of eating behavior, self-esteem, self-compassion, and psychological distress improved following completion of the six-week EFT program. The team of researchers hypothesized that the EFT group would report increased positive eating behaviors, decreased negative eating behaviors, increased self-esteem, increased self- compassion, and decreased psychological distress, compared to the control (wait list) group. They also expected that these treatment effects would be maintained at 10-week follow-up for the EFT group.

Method:   EFT was delivered to study participants in a group setting on a weekly basis for six weeks. The two facilitators were trained and certified in EFT and also held counseling degrees. They were supported by two masters psychology students, one of whom was a registered nurse. Each session consisted of 70 minutes of treatment per week, over 6 weeks. These sessions included an educational component along with EFT tapping. Each week focused on a different theme:

Week 1, Explanation of EFT; confidentiality and program rules.  Week 2, Body image, resilience, and self-compassion. Week 3, Dietary requirements, water intake, and taking care of yourself. Week 4, Importance of exercise and of getting sufficient sleep. Week 5, Information about take-away/junk foods and how to beat cravings. Week 6, Making goals and sticking to them; debriefing of program; questions and comments.

At the end of each session, participants were given take-home EFT information and activities to complete.

Participants were recruited from a local high school. The EFT group was comprised of 12 participants, and the wait list group was 14 participants. The wait list group did receive the EFT during the following school term, and those results will be reported in a separate study.

Each participant filled out an extensive pre-study questionnaire reporting on the details of factors such as eating habits, self-esteem, psychological distress and self-compassion. All of these factors were measured throughout the study and at follow-up using evaluation forms.

So, what were the results?

Most of the factors measured improved right after the 6-week EFT intervention, but many did not maintain at the 10-week follow up evaluation. For example, researchers found that the EFT group consumed a significantly higher number of healthy drinks at post-intervention, compared to the wait list group. However, the effect was not maintained at follow up. Yet, the EFT group also consumed a significantly lower level of unhealthy drinks, and this effect was maintained at follow up. Although the amount of healthy foods consumed post intervention was not significant, however, the study participants showed a significant decrease in the amount of unhealthy foods they were eating. Changes in psychological distress were also not statistically significant, but this could be because participants were not instructed to apply the EFT tapping to psychological symptoms. Both self-esteem and self-compassion increased significantly post intervention, but the results did not maintain at the follow-up.

Although the results are promising, due to small sample size, the authors suggest further study on this topic. They suggest future research that incorporates BMI (body mass index) as a variable so that weight can be evaluated for its impact on the outcome. The study results bode well regarding the potential of EFT to help adolescents who struggle with low self-esteem, poor eating habits and even eating disorders. It is especially promising that study participants reported that they found it easy to understand and use the EFT program.