Eating Disorder Prevention Research

BY: Hunna watson, PhD

DATE: May 1, 2016

Eating disorders are severe illnesses. They can raise the risk of medical and other mental health problems and contribute to issues at home, at work or school, and in relationships.

Scientists have identified several characteristics or “risk factors” that increase an individual’s likelihood of developing an eating disorder. Some of these risk factors are fixed “unmodifiable” characteristics. For example, an individual’s gender or family history of eating disorders cannot be changed through treatment; thus, these are considered unmodifiable risk factors. Other risk factors are “modifiable” meaning that you can take measures to change them. Examples of modifiable risks for eating disorders include: being unhappy with your weight or shape, believing that the ideal body shape for a woman is thin (or lean and muscular if you are a male), dieting, low self-esteem, anxiety and/or depression symptoms, and perfectionistic personality traits.

Researchers have been working to find ways to prevent the onset of eating disorders by reducing these risk factors. Most of this research has focused on prevention programs that aim to change modifiable risk factors. Some successful approaches include dissonance-based, cognitive behavioral, and media literacy prevention programs.

Dissonance-based prevention programs aim to reduce the individual’s belief that the ideal body shape is thin. They do this by having participants consider the physical, social, emotional, and financial costs associated with pursuing this thin-ideal. Cognitive-behavioral prevention programs improve body image by challenging an individual’s negative thoughts about his or her body. They also encourage healthy, lasting lifestyle changes to reach or maintain a healthy body weight. Media literacy prevention programs work to reduce the belief that one must look like the ideal body images presented in the media.

Evidence for the effectiveness of these approaches in particular has been encouraging, although there is no conclusive research as to which approach to prevention is best. Having a variety of evidence-based approaches available may be best, because the impact of a program may depend on age and risk factors. Programs that target body image, for example, may work better around puberty when bodies being to change rapidly, rather than before. Encouragingly, more than 100 research studies on eating disorder prevention have been conducted. These have clearly supported that risk factors for eating disorder onset can be reduced.

Other prevention programs that do not target specific risk factors are also sometimes used to prevent eating disorder onset. Learning about eating disorders or listening to recovered individuals speak about their experience are examples. Thus far, there have been no conclusive results on the effectiveness of these programs in preventing eating disorder onset; however, it is commonly believed that the best way to prevent the onset of an illness is to reduce the risks and causes of that illness. Since a lack of knowledge and awareness of eating disorders is not typically thought of as a risk factor for subsequent onset of an eating disorder, learning about these illnesses may not be sufficient to prevent their onset.

Reducing risk factors is important to the prevention of eating disorders. Even people who appear healthy and free of an eating disorder may have risk factors. The prevention of eating disorders is important for improving the lives of people around the world.