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Can eating disorders be prevented?

Eating disorders like anorexia nervosa (AN), bulimia nervosa (BN), and binge eating disorder (BED) are complex mental health conditions that often have several interlocking causes and symptoms that impact someone's physical, emotional, and mental well-being.

Often, it's difficult—if not impossible—to distinguish cause from effect when it comes to these factors or to separate the biological, psychological, and environmental considerations that work to develop and maintain eating disorders.

All of this, unfortunately, can make eating disorders tricky to prevent. In fact, there's likely no way to stop eating disorders from developing altogether.

However, some programs aim to help build awareness around these issues, reduce the impact of potential risk factors, and offer alternative perspectives or lifestyle choices that promote healthy eating habits and overall healthier ways of being.1

 minute read
Last updated on 
June 8, 2024
June 8, 2024
Eating disorders
In this article

Approaches to eating disorder prevention

In healthcare, "prevention" is a somewhat open term, as it can refer to different medical approaches or results, including:2

  • Primary prevention: The attempt to stop illness from ever occurring.
  • Secondary prevention: Focusing on early detection, often through screenings.
  • Tertiary prevention: The attempt to stop or slow the escalation of symptoms once they present in an individual.

Prevention initiatives can also be used to create change at different levels or for different populations, including:1

  • Universal prevention: Programs aimed at all people in a population, e.g., changes to public policy or cultural attitudes or institutions.
  • Selective prevention: Programs that target those who have not yet shown symptoms of eating disorders but who are considered "at risk" for developing the conditions.
  • Targeted prevention: Aimed at people who have already shown signs of an eating disorder or who experience clear, high-risk factors for developing one.

A multitude of eating disorder prevention programs have been developed over the years, attempting to combat the conditions in one or more of the above ways.

Eating disorder prevention programs

Eating disorders are highly individualistic conditions, and there's no one way to prevent eating disorders. But, researchers have found that programs that tend to be more successful have certain traits in common, including:3

  • A theory-driven approach
  • Targeting one or more specific risk factors
  • Multiple group sessions
  • At least some interactive content

In many cases, these programs focused not just on reducing the impact of potential eating disorder risk factors, such as body dissatisfaction, but on promoting more positive or protective outlooks, such as healthy eating habits, positive body image, and higher self-esteem.3

Educational measures were also largely successful, raising awareness around cultural pressures to achieve certain body types, media literacy, and body acceptance.3

Are eating disorder prevention programs successful?

The success of an eating disorder prevention program can also be hard to measure, depending on how one defines success or views any given results. Still, some broad assessments of these prevention efforts have been made over the years.

Overall, targeted programs have been found to have the highest success rates. However, findings can be challenging to measure, especially for universal prevention programs, which are often grand in scale and can take years to make an impact.1

In particular, targeted programs that involve a mix of prevention approaches have been found to be helpful for adolescents and young women from various ethnic backgrounds.1

Still, programs that employ an "ecological" approach or attempt to change the attitudes not just of an at-risk individual but of others in their circle and to their environment overall have also been noted for effectiveness.1

Potential dangers of eating disorder prevention programs

Many eating disorder prevention programs focus on early detection, with the thought that cases that are noticed earlier on have a better chance of reaching full recovery. But there are some potential setbacks involved with this idea.

Some researchers have suggested that screenings are largely insufficient, primarily due to skewed data sets. After decades of eating disorder research focused almost exclusively on white, cisgender females, there's a lack of information on how eating disorders present in other populations, including people of color, men, and the LGBTQ+ community.4

A lack of reporting can also impede screenings. The stigma associated with eating disorders can dissuade people from actively seeking help or discussing their experiences.4

Some in the scientific community have argued that eating disorder prevention programs may actually have iatrogenic effects or negative impacts on someone's health that were created by treatment.5

Other ways to prevent eating disorders

Eating disorders can't be prevented overall. But if you're worried about developing eating disorders or disordered eating behaviors, you can work to educate yourself about the risk factors of these conditions.

Increase awareness

Eating disorders form from a complex combination of biological, psychological, and environmental factors, which may leave some people at higher risk. While little can often be done about these issues, awareness may help encourage someone to develop a healthy body image, pursue a healthier lifestyle, or avoid potentially triggering scenarios, like following social media accounts that promote diet and exercise to achieve specific body shapes.


Going to therapy can also be helpful for many people. Even if you haven't yet presented with physical eating disorder symptoms, if you're experiencing thoughts about food restriction, diet, body shape, weight, or appearance, discussing these concerns with a trained professional can be a healthy outlet. Most therapists will also work to guide you away from any thoughts or compulsions that may be harmful and help you develop a healthier outlook and coping mechanisms.

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Finding help for eating disorders

If you or a loved one is struggling with an eating disorder, it's important to seek out help.

Your primary care physician, therapist, or another trusted medical professional is a good place to start. These experts are often well-versed in eating disorders and can help you determine your next best steps or recommend specific treatments or programs.

You can also contact us at Within Health. Our team of experts understands the complexities around eating disorders, so we use a multidisciplinary approach to build treatment plans tailored to your specific needs and history.

Contact us today to see how you can get started on the road to recovery.

Disclaimer about "overeating": Within Health hesitatingly uses the word "overeating" because it is the term currently associated with this condition in society, however, we believe it inherently overlooks the various psychological aspects of this condition which are often interconnected with internalized diet culture, and a restrictive mindset about food. For the remainder of this piece, we will therefore be putting "overeating" in quotations to recognize that the diagnosis itself pathologizes behavior that is potentially hardwired and adaptive to a restrictive mindset.

Disclaimer about weight loss drugs: Within does not endorse the use of any weight loss drug or behavior and seeks to provide education on the insidious nature of diet culture. We understand the complex nature of disordered eating and eating disorders and strongly encourage anyone engaging in these behaviors to reach out for help as soon as possible. No statement should be taken as healthcare advice. All healthcare decisions should be made with your individual healthcare provider.


  1. Prevention. (n.d.). National Eating Disorders Association. Accessed January 2024.
  2. Kisling, L. A., Das, J. M. (2023). Prevention Strategies. StatPearls. Accessed January 2023.
  3. Ciao, A. C., Loth, K., & Neumark-Sztainer, D. (2014). Preventing eating disorder pathology: common and unique features of successful eating disorders prevention programs. Current Psychiatry Reports, 16(7), 453.
  4. Davidson, K. W., Barry, M. J., Mangione, C. M., et. al. (2022). Screening for Eating Disorders in Adolescents and Adults: US Preventive Services Task Force Recommendation Statement. JAMA, 327(11), 1061–1067.
  5. Cororve Fingeret, M., Warren, C., Cepeda-Benito, A., Gleaves, D. H. (2007). Eating Disorder Prevention Research: A Meta-Analysis. The Journal of Treatment & Prevention, 14(3), 191-213.


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