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Yoga Research: What Do Current Studies Suggest About Yoga’s Impact on Eating Disorders?
Yoga may offer promise for prevention, treatment, and recovery from eating disorders. Not all yoga practices heal equally, and little information is available on best practices. This article explores the research on how yoga could help with disordered eating.
Due to their low cost, accessibility, and anecdotal effectiveness, yoga and mindfulness practices have become standard features of eating disorder treatment and recovery. These practices have been used in programs designed for those healing a range of eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge-eating disorder, and other non-specified eating disorders. Additionally, integrating eating disorder prevention into classes that target teenagers or college students has been suggested by researchers as a strategy to prevent eating disorders.
Yoga is theorized to improve disordered eating through several mechanisms. For example, yoga has been shown to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system. The calming impact of yoga makes it a potential coping mechanism for anxiety, which is frequently experienced as a comorbidity of eating disorders. Moreover, yoga can allow practitioners to experience self-compassion and recognize the inner dialogues in our minds, both of which may be beneficial for individuals with eating disorders.
The Research So Far
The most common theory for yoga’s capacity to prevent and heal eating disorders is that the practice may enhance and repair the mind-body connection. As researchers Dittmann and Freedman explain, eating disorders often create a disturbed mind-body connection (1). Despite an obsession with the physical aspects of their bodies, individuals with eating disorders often become numb to their basic bodily instincts, including hunger and satiety cues. Yoga may allow these individuals to practice observing subtle sensations throughout the body and practice nonreactivity when patterns of thought or emotion arise.
There is a plethora of anecdotal evidence to support yoga’s positive impact on disordered eating. Research is lacking on which types of yoga may be most effective and which types may do more harm than good. For example, a review paper published in 2014 by RYT-500 yoga teacher, registered dietician, and Epidemiologist Dianne Neumark-Sztainer concludes that yoga’s impact on eating disorders was not consistent across studies, and most studies published had major limitations in their design (2).
Since the time of this review’s publication, several studies have been added to the body of literature on yoga and eating disorders. For example, a randomized control trial study published in 2018 showed that among women diagnosed with bulimia nervosa or non-specified eating disorders, those who participated in an 11-week yoga program experienced significant reductions in eating disorder symptoms compared to the control group six months after the intervention (3). Another study found that adolescent girls in outpatient eating disorder treatment reported lower levels of anxiety, depression, and body image disturbance without causing weight loss after completing just 7 to 12 yoga classes (4). Finally, a control trial study found lower levels of body image dissatisfaction and a lower desire for thinness among fifth-grade girls who participated in a 14-week yoga-based eating disorder program compared to the control group (5)
More Research Could Shed More Light on Yoga’s Impact
However, in general, the most supportive evidence of yoga’s impact on eating disorders remains to anecdotal. The research on yoga and eating disorders is still limited, and many published studies involve too small a sample size and too short a duration of study to have meaningful results. There is a need for further high-quality, randomized control trial studies on yoga’s place in the treatment and prevention of eating disorders, including which styles of practice are most effective in treating different kinds of disorders.
In the absence of high-quality data, we can work with the guidance of those who have worked with individuals with eating disorders. From her personal experience, Neumark-Sztainer recommends that studios use mirror-free rooms to facilitate a process of turning inward; provide classes suitable to all levels of ability to make practice inclusive; and employ teachers of all ages, weights, and body types to encourage body positivity (2). Perhaps even more critical, yoga classes for individuals with eating disorders should be designed as a way for participants to connect with the breath, with their minds, and with their bodies rather than being framed as a workout. Students may benefit from hearing language and messages aimed at eating disorder prevention in these classes.
Yoga has the potential to continue to prevent and treat eating disorders and disordered eating behavior. Further research is needed for more information on best practices to become available to teachers in the future.
Study with Shawnee Thornton Hardy and YogaUOnline - Yoga for Kids with Special Needs: Focus on Autism and ADHD.
Lacey Gibson is a Boston-based freelance food writer, a global health research consultant, an RYT-200 yoga teacher, and a certified barre teacher. She graduated in 2015 with a BA/BS in French and Physiology from Southern Illinois University, where she also competed as an NCAA DI track/cross country runner. Additionally, she holds a Masters of Science in Global Health and Population from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. As a writer, Lacey specializes in mindful consumption of chocolate, coffee, and wine. Her work has been published in the Journal of Wine Research, Gastronomica, Fresh Cup, Elephant Journal, Happy Cow, and DOYOUYOGA, YogaUOnline, among others. Lacey's mission as a writer and as a yoga teacher is to inspire openness, compassion, and connection through mindful movement, living, and eating.
Dittmann, K.A., & Freedman, M.R. (2009). Body awareness, eating attitudes, and spiritual beliefs of women practicing yoga. Eating Disorders, 17(4):273-92
Neumark-Sztainer, D. (2014). Yoga and eating disorders: Is there a place for yoga in the prevention and treatment of eating disorders and disordered eating behaviors? Advances in Eating Disorders, 2(2): 136–145.
Karlsen, K.E., Vrabel, K., Bratland-Sanda, S., Ulleberg, P., & Benum, K. (2018). Effect of Yoga in the Treatment of Eating Disorders: A single-blinded randomized controlled trial with 6-months follow-up. International Journal of Yoga, 11(2): 166–169.
Hall, A., Ofei-Tenkorang, N.A., Machan, J.T., & Gordon, C.M. (2016). Use of yoga in outpatient eating disorder treatment: a pilot study. Journal of Eating Disorders, 4: 38.
Cottone-Cook, C., Talebkhah, K., Guyker, W., Keddie, E. (2017). A controlled trial of a yoga-based prevention program targeting eating disorder risk factors among middle school females. Eating Disorders, 25(5):392-405.