Research News

Studies to document impact of yoga as treatment for eating disorders


Published July 16, 2018

headshot of catherine cook-cottone.
“Athough yoga is being used in eating disorder treatment centers all over the world, no study has looked at a comprehensive program or long-term outcomes. ”
Catherine Cook-Cottone, professor
Department of Counseling, School and Educational Psychology

Yogis in Service

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Yogis in Service Grant Winning Video

A UB faculty member whose yoga and mindfulness classes have stretched from the White House lawn to the Nairobi region of Kenya has launched what scholars say is the largest-ever research initiative on a yoga program’s impact on food and body image challenges.

The grant awarded to Catherine Cook-Cottone, director of the advanced certificate in mindful counseling program and professor in UB’s Graduate School of Education, continues her work integrating yoga as treatment for young people — particularly young women — with and at risk for eating disorders.

The grant, funded by Lululemon Athletica’s philanthropic initiative and the Give Back Yoga Foundation, supports a set of studies exploring the efficacy of the Eat, Breathe, Thrive yoga program created by author and educator Chelsea Roff. Researchers hope the studies will pave the way for yoga-based mental health programs to become eligible for “third-party reimbursement for services … on a larger scale.”

“I, along with my co-leader (clinical associate professor) Wendy Guyker and doctoral students on our research team, are looking to see if the Eat, Breathe, Thrive program helps those at risk for, or struggling with, eating disorders,” says Cook-Cottone. “Does the program help people make better, healthier choices once they have spent time doing yoga, learning and thinking about social pressures and exploring self-care?”

One arm of the study will involve female athletes who may be uniquely at risk, Cook-Cottone says.

“Critically, although yoga is being used in eating disorder treatment centers all over the world, no study has looked at a comprehensive program or long-term outcomes. We are doing that, too. This is a tremendous opportunity for our research team.”

Among the 30 million people who practice yoga worldwide, half of them say they started yoga because of recommendations from a physician or therapist, according to the grant proposal. They say yoga has improved the quality of their lives; reduced stress; lowered heart rate; helped relieve anxiety, depression and insomnia; and led to overall physical health, strength and flexibility.

“Despite the known benefits of yoga, health insurers and government health care systems do not cover therapeutic yoga programs,” the grant proposal states. “In order to secure funding from health insurers and national health systems, substantial academic research must show yoga-based interventions can improve the outcome of eating disorders.”

UB professor Catherine Cook-Cottone (right) at the White House in 2015.

UB faculty member Catherine Cook-Cottone (right) at the White House Easter Egg Roll in 2015. Photo: Meghan Powell

To date, only three controlled trial studies have examined the efficacy of yoga for eating disorders, Cook-Cottone explains. Studying individuals affected by eating disorders is very difficult, and these studies often have few participants, short duration and other study design challenges, she says. The collaboration between Eat Breathe Thrive and UB gives researchers an opportunity to collect data on an established, manualized yoga program that serves hundreds of individuals in community, educational and medical settings.

“The result will be the largest-ever research initiative on a yoga program for food and body image challenges,” according to the grant proposal.

The Eat Breathe Thrive project actually is three distinct studies focusing on three distinct groups: individuals with clinical eating disorders, adults with run-of-the-mill food and body image issues, and college athletes.

“Each of these groups deals with food and body image issues at varying level of intensity,” the proposal says.

The two-year study will answer several questions: Is the Eat Breathe Thrive program an effective adjunct treatment for eating disorders? Can yoga-based programs help to prevent eating disorders? Does the program support mindful eating, emotional resilience and body confidence?

A strong advocate and scholar of mindfulness, Cook-Cottone has integrated academic research, yoga study, and instruction and individual counseling since joining the UB faculty in 2002. Recently promoted to full professor in the Department of Counseling, School and Educational Psychology, she has written six books and published more than 60 articles and research papers exploring positive embodiment and self-regulation.

Cook-Cottone is a licensed psychologist, registered yoga teacher and partner at Snyder Psychological Services. She writes a blog (The Yoga Bag), teaches yoga at Power Yoga Buffalo, and is president and founder of Yogis in Service Inc., a not-for-profit organization that creates access to yoga across Western New York.

“I am on a journey through my research, service, teaching and yoga to empower individuals to be self-regulated,” Cook-Cottone has written. “I have found that for many, this means that self-regulation must be embodied and it must be a practice.”