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Preventing eating disorders

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In our society, a large percentage of young women, and an increasing number of young men, engage in disordered eating behaviour.

These behaviours develop in response to high levels of body dissatisfaction and weight concerns and can lead to serious physical, psychological and social problems.

In the case of people with 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:

1. Genetic vulnerability

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.

2. Psychological factors

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
  • Stress
  • Depression
  • 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
  • Trauma

3. Socio-cultural influences

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

Learn more about risk factors and how they relate to various eating disorders can be found on our risk factors page.

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, such as high self-esteem, confidence and positive body image
  • Family protective factors, like family connectedness, happiness and healthy eating behaviours
  • Socio-cultural factors, such as a reduced emphasis on weight and physical appearance

Learn more about protective factors on our protective factors page.


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