Can eating disorders be prevented?

Naomi Carr
Author: Naomi Carr Medical Reviewer: Morgan Blair Last updated:

Eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder, are mental health conditions that affect individuals eating habits and body image. The development of eating disorders can be reduced or prevented with education and by promoting healthy thoughts and behaviors.

Tips on preventing eating disorders

There are several ways in which you can help yourself and others prevent the development of an eating disorder, including [1][2][3][4]:

Educating yourself

Learning more about healthy eating and exercise, including what nutrients is required for the body to function properly. Education can aid in the prevention of developing unhealthy habits. Education can also help demonstrate to others how to maintain health and fitness in a positive way, with an appreciation of the body and its functions.

Similarly, it can be useful to learn more about eating disorders. Educate yourself how these disorders develop and present, the thought and behavior patterns that can occur, and how to recognize, challenge, and prevent these symptoms. This can help you when speaking with others, so you can share your knowledge and help fight stigma and false preconceptions of eating disorders.

Maintaining mental wellbeing

Similarly, having an understanding of how to improve and maintain mental wellbeing can help prevent the development of eating disorders. For example, encourage yourself and others to engage in positive actions, such as mindfulness, meditation, yoga, being in nature, and forming a sleep routine, to promote a positive and healthy mind.

Recognizing risk factors

Learning the contributing risk factors and warning signs can help prevent eating disorders from developing, by providing an opportunity for early recognition and intervention.

Building self-esteem

Eating disorders can develop from low self-esteem, particularly around body image, so it can be useful to find ways to build confidence and learn to value personal aspects that are not based on appearance. Similarly, you can help to promote positive self-image in others, building their self-esteem by acknowledging and valuing aspects of their personality and achievements.

Challenging social ideals

Beauty ideals that are portrayed in the media often promote thinness, contributing to negative attitudes and language around body shape and appearance. Challenging and speaking out against this social pressure can help to reduce the impact and influence of unhealthy societal attitudes.

Altering your language

Similarly, it is also helpful to learn how to recognize and challenge your own contributions to these attitudes. This may mean altering your negative thoughts and language, such as being critical of your own or others’ appearance, eating, or exercise choices, or referring to food as ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

Modeling positive behavior

Demonstrating healthy attitudes and behaviors around eating habits and body image can have a positive impact on others around you, especially children and adolescents. You can do this by modeling positive relationships with food, making healthy eating choices, showing the benefits of appropriate exercise, and maintaining a positive attitude around your own body image.

Risk factors that can contribute to developing an eating disorder

The development of an eating disorder can be influenced by several risk factors, which can contribute to unhealthy thoughts and behaviors around eating and body image, such as [4][5][6]:

  • Family history: Individuals with a direct family member with an eating disorder have an increased risk of developing an eating disorder themselves, as there is a genetic heritability to these conditions. Similarly, growing up with a parent or family member who demonstrates unhealthy eating behaviors and attitudes can increase the risk of these patterns emerging.
  • Past weight issues: Childhood obesity can increase the likelihood of developing an eating disorder, due to bullying from peers around body weight, criticism from family members about eating habits and weight, and the development of negative thoughts and behaviors associated with eating.
  • Traumatic events: Experiencing bullying, abuse, or other traumatic events in childhood has been found to increase the risk of an eating disorder developing.
  • Recurrent dieting: Engaging in regular weight loss attempts, such as dieting and fasting, increases the risk of eating disorders. Regular dieting, or ‘yo-yo’ dieting, can cause rapid fluctuations in weight. Weight lost during the diet is typically regained as the dietary restriction is stopped, potentially leading to unhealthy habits and eating disorder symptoms.
  • Mental health: Many people with an eating disorder also experience mental health issues such as depression, anxiety disorders, and low self-esteem, indicating that these conditions can contribute to or worsen disordered eating.
  • Puberty: Many eating disorders, such as bulimia and anorexia, commonly develop in adolescence, during puberty. Physical and hormonal changes during this period of time, as well as a growing awareness of societal beauty ideals, can contribute to body dissatisfaction and the development of disordered eating habits.
  • Sports: There is a higher prevalence of eating disorders, particularly anorexia, amongst adolescents and young adults who engage in sports such as gymnastics, ballet, and athletics. This is believed to be due to the pressures they face in maintaining a specific body shape and appearance, along with a preoccupation with eating and exercise habits.
  • Personality traits: Certain personality traits can increase the chance of developing an eating disorder, such as obsessive, perfectionist, neurotic, or impulsive traits.

Warning signs of eating disorders

Before an eating disorder develops fully, there may be warning signs that indicate the presence of disordered eating habits and attitudes, such as [7][8][9]:

  • Avoiding eating with others or eating in secret
  • Hiding or hoarding foods
  • Frequent attempts at dieting
  • Fluctuation of weight or rapid weight loss
  • Avoiding a specific type of food altogether, such as carbohydrates or chocolate
  • Forming rituals around eating habits, such as using specific utensils to eat or not letting foods touch on the plate
  • Engaging in excessive exercise
  • Making negative comments about appearance or body shape
  • Going to the bathroom immediately after eating
  • Avoiding social events, especially those that involve food

What are prevention programs?

Many countries have developed prevention programs aimed at preventing the development of eating disorders. These programs typically focus on education around eating disorders and promoting healthy behaviors and habits. Education and promotion happen in the context of group workshops, online resources, and individual support [6][10].

The focus of these programs varies depending on the targeted group. For example, there are programs aimed at the general population, in which education is provided to help develop understanding of eating disorders and ways in which to prevent the onset of symptoms and reduce associated stigma and preconceptions [1][4].

Similarly, there are prevention programs aimed at risk groups, such as adolescent females or those with a family history of eating disorders, in which more tailored support and education is provided to help reduce the impact of any eating disorder risk factors that are present [1][6].

Finally, there are prevention programs aimed at high-risk groups, such as those who are showing behaviors that may indicate the early stages of an eating disorder. In these prevention programs support is provided that more closely resembles eating disorder treatment, to help manage and reduce any warning signs or symptoms that are beginning to emerge and prevent the full onset of an eating disorder [2][6][10].

Generally, these programs have been found to have a positive impact on those who take part and have aided in the prevention of eating disorders with useful support and education [1][6][10].

  1. National Eating Disorders Association. (2022). Prevention. NEDA. Retrieved from
  2. Kelty Mental Health. (2023). Prevention. Kelty Mental Health Resource Centre. Retrieved from
  3. National Eating Disorders Association. (2005). What Can You Do To Help Prevent Eating Disorders? NEDA. Retrieved from
  4. Walsh, B.T., Bulik, C.M., Fairburn, C.G., Golden, N.H., Halmi, K.A., Herzog, D.B., Kaplan, A.S., Kreipe, R.E., Mitchell, J.E., Pike, K.M., Stice, E., Striegel-Moore, R.H., Taylor, C.B., Wadden, T.A., & Wilson, G.T. (2005). Prevention of Eating Disorders. In Evans, D.L., Foa, E.B., Gur, R.E., Hendin, H., O’Brien, C.P., Seligman, M.E.P., & Walsh, B.T. (Ed.), Treating and Preventing Adolescent Mental Health Disorders: What We Know and What We Don’t Know. A Research Agenda for Improving the Mental Health of Our Youth, (pp. 303-324) Oxford Academic. Retrieved from
  5. National Eating Disorders Association. (2005). Risk Factors. NEDA. Retrieved from
  6. Pratt, B.M., & Woolfenden, S.R. (2002). Interventions for Preventing Eating Disorders in Children and Adolescents. The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 2002(2), CD002891. Retrieved from
  7. Mind. (2021). Types of Eating Disorders. Mind. Retrieved from
  8. National Health Service. (Reviewed 2021). Eating Disorders. NHS. Retrieved from
  9. National Eating Disorders Association. (2005). Warning Signs and Symptoms. NEDA. Retrieved from
  10. National Eating Disorders Collaboration. (n.d). Prevention Programs. NEDC. Retrieved from
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Naomi Carr
Author Naomi Carr Writer

Naomi Carr is a writer with a background in English Literature from Oxford Brookes University.

Published: May 16th 2023, Last edited: Sep 22nd 2023

Morgan Blair
Medical Reviewer Morgan Blair MA, LPCC

Morgan Blair is a licensed therapist, writer and medical reviewer, holding a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling from Northwestern University.

Content reviewed by a medical professional. Last reviewed: May 16th 2023