Preventing Eating Disorders
‘Prevention’ refers to specific programs or interventions designed to reduce risk factors, enhance protective factors and ultimately stop the increasing rate of eating disorders in our society.
Early diagnosis, prevention programs and appropriate cost-effective treatments have proven to greatly reduce the impact of an eating disorder.
Understanding who is most at risk
While research into the causes of eating disorders continues, it remains an area that is not well understood. Although no single cause of eating disorders has been identified, there are many risk factors that increase the likelihood that a person will experience an eating disorder at some point in their life.
The National Institute of Mental Health (1995) defines risk factors as those characteristics of the person or environment that typically appear before the onset of a mental illness. Research into eating disorders has shown that knowing who is most at risk of developing an eating disorder directly relates to knowing who will benefit most from preventative interventions.
The risk factors for eating disorders are often broadly grouped into different types:
Genetic vulnerability refers to a person’s ability to inherit an eating disorder from their biological parent. There is some evidence that does suggest eating disorders can have a genetic basis, however, the greater biological causes of eating disorders are still not fully understood.
Psychological factors include various behaviours and personality characteristics that can place a person at a greater risk of adopting disordered eating habits. These characteristics can include:
- Low self-esteem or feelings of inadequacy
- Perfectionism, obsessive-compulsiveness or neuroticism
- Negative emotions or cynicism
- Overvaluing body image in defining self-worth
- Harm avoidance or traits such as excessive worrying, anxiety, fear, doubt and pessimism
- Avoidance of social interaction
- Heightened sensitivity or inability to cope with negative evaluations
Socio-cultural influences refer to external, environmental occurrences that may have an impact on how someone perceives their body image. These messages are often delivered via platforms like television, movies, magazines and advertising.
However, socio-cultural influences can also relate to situations involving peers, friends, family, teachers, sport coaches and other figures of authority or influence.
Socio-cultural risk factors include:
- Internalising the western beauty ideal of thinness, muscularity and leanness
- Societal pressure to achieve and succeed
- Involvement in a sport or industry with an emphasis on a thin body shape and size (e.g. ballet dancer, gymnast, model, athlete)
- Peer pressure
- Teasing or bullying (especially when based on weight or body shape)
- Troubled family or personal relationships
Why are some people more resilient than others?
Research has shown that there are some protective factors that may reduce the likelihood of developing an eating disorder. As with risk factors, protective factors tend to be grouped for ease of reference. These groups include:
Individual protective factors
- High self-esteem
- Positive body image
Family protective factors
- Family connectedness
- Healthy eating behaviours
- Reduced emphasis on weight
- Physical appearance
Find out more on our Protective Factors page.
Primary prevention interventions aim to prevent the onset or development of an eating disorder and may be universal, selective or indicated. While the aims of all these interventions can vary slightly, they do share common goals that are focused on enhancing the prevention of eating disorders in general.
Secondary prevention interventions aim to lower the severity and duration of an eating disorder in a person who already has the illness. There is considerable overlap between indicated prevention and secondary prevention, with both methods sharing various aims and targeting similar groups.
In our society, a large percentage of young women and men engage in disordered eating behaviour. Disordered eating behaviours develop in response to negative body image and body dissatisfaction and can lead to serious physical, psychological, and functional problems.
Through communication platforms such as the media and social media, we are faced with manipulated, filtered and digitally enhanced images. Repeated exposure of such images can result in individuals feeling pressured to adhere to such ideals of appearance, increasing the risk of disordered eating and eating disorders.