A team of researchers at the University of Kansas have developed an app called the Building Healthy Eating and Self-Esteem Together for University Students (BEST-U), which has shown promise in helping combat eating disorders at the University of Kansas campus.
The app offers a unique way for college students to access care for eating disorders, a process that is often rife with challenges, from being able to find and access care (many college campuses don’t have providers who specialize in eating disorders) to being able to pay for it. Going beyond a college campus for care can be challenging as well, as many students face long wait times to see a specialist.
Researchers at the University of Kansas wanted to develop a tool that was both uniquely suited to the student population while also addressing the high demand for eating disorder care. The team ultimately grounded the app in guided-self-help cognitive behavior therapy, a common therapeutic approach designed to help change certain behaviors. However, there is often a lot of workbook instruction and reading involved in self-help cognitive behavior therapy, so researchers developed a condensed version that might make students more eager to participate in using the app to receive care.
The app is designed to provide users with access to a range of tools to monitor their progress while managing their eating disorder, including videos, quizzes, surveys, and weekly access to a health coach trained in the BEST-U app.
In ongoing clinical studies of the app, students are randomized into one of two groups: the active group, where students follow and use the BEST-U app, or a control group, where students are “waitlisted” for 12 weeks, which is still less time than students may spend on a waitlist to see a specialist.
Overall, researchers found that an overall decline in eating disorder behaviors, including purging, excessive exercise, and even found improvements in body satisfaction among participants who used the app. These positive results continued even at three- and six-month check ins with participants.
Next, researchers plan to apply for additional funding and work with researchers at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas to better understand the generalizable nature of BEST-U.
An estimated 30 million people in the U.S. alone struggle with an eating disorder. There is typically a higher rate of eating disorders among college students because many eating disorders, like anorexia or bulimia nervosa, tend to present at younger ages, usually around 18 years old.