Focus on Faculty: Suman Ambwani
by Christine Baksi
April 18, 2012
Your research on eating behaviors and disorders has focused on binge-eating, but soon you will study the effectiveness of treatments for anorexia nervosa. Talk about that transition and your upcoming study at the Institute of Psychiatry/Kings College, London.
Anorexia nervosa (AN) tends to be characterized by intense dietary restriction rather than problems with binge-eating—although some individuals do experience binge-eating as well—so this transition represents an important shift in my research on eating-related problems. Despite many individuals experiencing a variety of eating- and body-related concerns that overlap with AN, few actually meet the specific diagnostic criteria for this disorder, which of course makes it quite challenging to research.
AN is associated with one of the highest mortality rates relative to other psychiatric diagnoses and is amongst the most difficult to treat. One treatment that does show promise is a family-based approach known as the Maudsley Method, which was developed in London. Given the understanding that individual-level as well as interpersonal factors maintain AN symptoms, family-based treatment appears to be well-suited to address both components. It also attempts to clearly identify the disease, and not the individual, as the problem.
My upcoming study investigates whether changes in interpersonal processes (i.e., how clients, family members, and therapists interact with one another) predict symptom reduction among women with AN. This study is unique in its use of improved research methods, such as the use of multiple raters and repeated assessments of client functioning, as well as the application of a new theoretical framework to understand AN. This project can further our understanding of interpersonal behavior in AN and therefore facilitate improvements to psychological interventions for this disorder.
Based on your studies, does the fear of fatness permeate other cultures as it does in the U.S.?
Absolutely. It’s interesting that we tend to think of fear of fatness as a uniquely Western phenomenon but in fact the data do not support that assertion. Some of my previous research suggests that this intense preoccupation with and fear of gaining even a little bit of weight is prevalent among college students in Spain and India, which suggests that perhaps we should be directing greater eating-disorder awareness and prevention efforts toward these populations.
As an organizer of Dickinson’s Love Your Body Week, you encouraged students to put an end to “fat talk.” Why is engaging in “fat talk” so damaging?
“Fat talk” refers to comments that focus on describing the body as an object rather than as oneself and contributes to negative outcomes, such as low self-esteem, poor body image, and—according to research conducted by Alyssa Compeau ’11—greater body dissatisfaction. Although we tend to blame media outlets and other external factors as promoters of the thin-ideal culture, we don’t often look toward ourselves and consider: what am I doing that contributes to this problem? Calling attention to this problematic language is part of a national campaign called Fat Talk Free Week, which is based on an empirically supported peer-led eating-disorder prevention program. At Dickinson, we revised the week to Love your Body Week to provide greater clarity and to broaden the objectives of the week to focus on a wellness-oriented model, while also educating individuals about the harmful nature of “fat talk.”
Issues associated with body image and eating behaviors resonate with college students. Talk about student involvement in your research lab.
I have been very fortunate to work with some remarkable research assistants over the past several years. Not only have these students been instrumental in facilitating my research, such as assisting with project development, data collection and data entry, but many of them also have conducted independent research on the topic of body image and eating behaviors. Jenn Chmielewski ’10 and I conducted research on the predictors of accurate body-weight reporting among men and women. Angela Guy ’12, Nina Ligato ’12 and Dave Breen ’12 worked with me to investigate the role of social-environmental pressures on body image among male collegiate athletes. Finally, Sara Moss ’14, who has been assisting me with project development for my new study on the Maudsley Method, is hoping to complete an internship with me in London as a way to gain hands-on experience in a clinical-research setting. It is particularly exciting for me when students have the opportunity to attend national conferences and present their research, as this is a great way for them to learn about how information is communicated within the scientific community. Their enthusiasm for the research process is incredibly contagious, and I am continually impressed by their willingness to take initiative.