We get a lot of distasteful PR pitches, particularly in the realm of health: crazy cleanses, quick-fix diets, and a constant stream of medical professionals hoping we'll ask them for quotes about Jessica Simpson's bikini body. But, the pitch for Chasing Hunger, a new book by Kathy Welter Nichols, is so outrageous and offensive that it's almost laughable. Almost.
With this "90-day bulimia breakthrough challenge" Nichols claims that sufferers of bulimia can achieve "complete recovery" with no support from medical or psychiatric professionals. Her program claims to cure bulimia by "fusing layman advice with a series of powerful exercises, affirmation cards, and MP3s."
Then, there's her title and cover art, both not-so-subtle rip-offs of The Hunger Games. The marketing ploy is clear, but it's deeply unsettling to imagine the conversation that led to that decision: Teens love bulimia and popular YA fiction!
Psychology, Nichols claims, has bulimia all wrong. "The traditional psychology/therapy model treating bulimia looks for sexual misconduct as the aggravator for eating disorders," she says in her press release. "But, my findings are very different." Instead, Nichols claims bulimia is a form of addiction developed in the teenage years, thanks to the influence of friends and media.
Hopefully, anyone with common sense would raise an eyebrow at statements like these. But, just in case, we reached out to Dr. Melissa Klein, PhD, a clinical psychologist at the Cornell Eating Disorder department, to get her take on Chasing Hunger.
As for Nichols' claims that psychologists automatically equate sexual abuse with eating disorders, Dr. Klein replies, "I have been treating eating disorders for almost 20 years, and the current traditional psychology model for treating bulimia has nothing to do with sexual abuse or misconduct. I think anyone who is making this type of statement is unfamiliar with the research done on eating disorders over the past 20-plus years."
However, not every statement in Chasing Hunger is entirely baseless. Dr. Klein confirms that "bulimia has similarities to addiction" in that the brain can react to the binge-purge cycle the same way it might with substance addiction. However, treating bulimia like a drug addiction, for example, is wrongheaded and can lead to further harm. "For example, if someone tries to stop bingeing by severely restricting their food intake or by being extremely rigid about their eating, then it is likely that they will start bingeing and purging again. Even though it may work for a short amount of time for some people, it rarely is a long-term solution."
The 90-day plan is also not without precedent, as some cases may indeed be effectively treated in that timeframe — but a 90-day cure is certainly not a given. "You have to take into account the severity of the eating disorder and other factors in the person's life. Also, a person may have other co-morbid diagnoses which can affect prognosis," says Dr. Klein. "It is misleading to say that everyone can be treated in 90 days."
It is also misleading to tell a bulimic person (rather, all bulimic people, as Nichols claims) that all they need is affirmations and MP3s to get better. Certainly, alternative methods shouldn't be entirely discounted and may be helpful in supporting or speeding recovery for some. Furthermore, Dr. Klein asserts that self-treatment might be recommended for certain patients who are medically stable. But, bulimia is a serious issue with long-term physical and mental ramifications. It is simply reprehensible to steer someone in the grip of an eating disorder away from professional support.
"I would always recommend seeing a physician first, and being honest with the physician so that they know what danger signs they should look for — i.e. electrolyte imbalances and cardiac abnormalities," says Dr. Klein. "Also, if someone is trying to self-treat and they do not see any progress in a few weeks, I would recommend they see a professional."
The press release says Chasing Hunger is available at Barnes & Noble and on Amazon, though we didn't find it on either website. However, searching for "Kathy Welter Nichols" on Amazon reveals a handful of audio titles such as Bulimia Quick Fix. If these programs aren't quick enough for you, her website also offers another program called the "3-day bulimia breakthrough method." No prices are listed on the site. Users must email her directly if they want to purchase a program.
If we're being extremely generous, maybe Nichols believes she is offering legitimate treatment. But, that doesn't mean she isn't taking great advantage of sufferers of eating disorders. From the branding to the claims, Chasing Hunger offers snake oil to people in need of real help. And, as Nichols herself notes in a promotional video, those struggling with bulimia "can get very fuzzy-brained" thanks to the symptoms of long-term starvation. Imagine stumbling across this book in a state of physical illness and cognitive impairment, desperate for help. Those are the victims that people like Nichols prey on with their flashy covers and cure-all promises.
If you need help (or know someone who might) there are many legitimate resources available. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Interpersonal Therapy are both recommended in the treatment of bulimia, but no matter what plan you require, there isn't one magic protocol for every case. People who tell you there is — and that they have it — aren't looking to help anyone but themselves.