UCSD Researchers Receive Department of Defense Grant to Improve Binge Eating Treatment for Veterans

The Department of Defense awarded more than $3 million to a UC San Diego research team to treat military veterans who have a binge eating disorder. Led by UCSD Professor of Pediatrics and Psychiatry Dr. Kerri Boutelle, the team will study an alternative binge eating therapy method which combats binge eating and enhance weight loss.

Those with the disorder have recurrent overeating episodes and a feeling of being out of control. This disorder gained attention in recent years as a result of the shortcomings of current treatment options.

Traditional cognitive behavioral therapy, where patients are trained to change their thoughts surrounding binge eating to manage their behavior, has been effective in reducing binge eating but results in no weight loss for patients. Because of this, the UCSD research team is looking into a new method of treatment.

“We are focusing on two mechanisms of binge eating. One of them is food cue responsiveness, how much you pay attention to food, want to eat things, and can’t stop when you start eating, and satiety responsiveness, how much you feel full and can stop eating when full,” Boutelle said. “We’ve developed a program called ROC, Regulation of Cues, which target those two mechanisms, and in our pilot data suggest that it reduces binge eating and weight at the same time. We use experiential exercises and it specifically targets those mechanisms.”

The research is a joint effort between UCSD, the University of Minnesota, and VA San Diego Healthcare System; However, each member of the team will specialize in particular facets. To see whether the new therapy method makes a difference compared to cognitive behavioral therapy, University of Minnesota Associate Professor of Psychiatry Dr. Carol Peterson will do comparative research on patients. By comparing the results from patients who went through traditional therapy to those who went through Boutelle’s new method, Peterson will ensure that Dr. Boutelle’s therapy is more successful than the cognitive behavior therapy.

The final member of the team, VA San Diego Associate Chief of Staff for Mental Health Dr. Niloofar Afari, will work primarily on identifying and recruiting overweight veterans who may struggle with binge eating.

“VA San Diego is a relatively large health care system with the main hospital facilities here in La Jolla, very close to the UCSD campus, and several very large out-patient clinics throughout San Diego county,” Afari explains to UCSD. “Our plan for recruitment is to recruit veterans in primary care clinics and weight control clinics through flyers and advertising throughout VA San Diego. We will also contact a variety of primary care providers who see veterans on a regular basis.”

The DOD would like to reduce both binge eating and obesity, because it costs the military over $2 million per year in absenteeism and medical costs. In the long run, if the new therapy method is successful, the DOD would be able to better address those already suffering from the disorder and help prevent other soldiers from developing it.  

“Hopefully what we can do is educate the public that there are individuals who are susceptible to developing these behaviors,” Boutelle said. “It’s not something they did wrong, but they were genetically at risk to develop these behaviors and are reacting to the food environment today.”

The research project will span a time of approximately four years, with the first three years focused on recruitment, enrollment, and randomized trials. The final year will be dedicated to data analysis.

Dr. Boutelle is confident that her team will be able to complete the trials smoothly. Moreover, Dr. Afari believes that the research comes at an auspicious time when there is wide support for the project in the VA as well as the overall veteran community.

photo by Tyler Faurot

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