Can you prevent an eating disorder? Many of my clients in recovery (and their parents) often ask themselves what they could have done differently to bypass the eating disorder path. While certain medical concerns have clear preventative measures (i.e. practicing safe sex to prevent STIs), this is not necessarily the case for eating disorders. Since these disorders arise from a complexity of psychosocial factors and because interactions with food and body are an inevitable part of daily life, developing the disorder can be a slippery slope if various risk factors are in place. However, the good news is that eating disorders do not develop overnight, and there are various protective factors you can put in place to lower your risk. Here are some way you can do so:
Evaluate your current relationship with food and body image.
How would you describe this relationship? Do you tend to start new diets frequently and then “give up”? Do you put a lot of focus on your body image and appearance? How often do you weigh yourself and why? You may not have an eating disorder, but your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors surrounding food and your body may be causing you some discomfort. This is what many individuals experience before they develop a full-fledged eating disorder. Evaluating your relationship with food and body image early on, before it becomes debilitating, can be a great way to help reduce the risk of developing an eating disorder.
Eating disorders frequently co-occur with other psychological disorders or can arise as a way to cope with distress. If you struggle with mental health concerns (depression, anxiety, trauma, etc.) or feel overwhelmed in certain aspects of your life, take the step to seek help. Seeing a therapist can be a powerful way to be vulnerable and process challenging thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Having the space to delve into your internal experience is a very adaptive way to unload challenging feelings that underlie many eating disorders. Allow yourself to be vulnerable with others in your support system in order to have a healthy outlet for your experiences.
Ditch diet culture.
Dieting is a significant risk factor for developing various eating disorders. Our culture constantly reinforces dieting behavior and idealizes particular body types. Such messages put individuals at risk for manipulating their food and exercise, and finding fault with their bodies. Train yourself to recognize these notions, and if you want to diet, ask yourself if you are buying into these societal expectations and whether they will actually make you happy. Reliance on these food behaviors can eventually turn into a coping strategy typical in eating disorders. Dieting also interferes with your hunger, fullness, and emotional cues, leading you to become less attuned to your body – another way to develop an eating disorder. Instead, look into mindful eating practices or meet with a dietician to learn how to eat and exercise in an intuitive manner.
Honor your body.
Body dissatisfaction is also a risk factor for eating disorders. Learning to accept your body is an integral part of eating disorder prevention. Think about how you feel about your body and why. What would having a different body do for you? Is this realistic? Thank your body for all the ways it helps you and honor it through mindful eating and exercise. Surround yourself with individuals who don’t focus on hating and changing their bodies, and be mindful of how you talk about the bodies of others and yourself. Moreover, list qualities about yourself that you value, outside of your appearance – your kindness, passion, sense of humor, musical talent, etc. Remember that you are more than your body.
Becoming disconnected from one’s body (both physical and emotional sensations) can often set the stage for an eating disorder. Be mindful of your body by checking in with its cues at least once per day – What do you experience? Fullness? Hunger? Pain? Nausea? Becoming more aware of these signals can help you address your needs more appropriately.
Often times, we manipulate our bodies to cope with distress. For instance, we may want to deal with a breakup by trying to lose weight or change our hair color. However, changing our bodies does not address our true feelings, and relying on this idea will can set the stage for an eating disorder. Instead of using your body as an outlet, create a toolbox of adaptive practices for emotional regulation. Make self-care a regular part of your routine through activities that make you feel nurtured and at peace. Part of healthy coping might also include setting healthy boundaries with others.
Bahar Moheban, M.A. is a clinical psychology doctoral candidate and registered psychological assistant in Torrance under the supervision of Dr. Nazanin Moali. She provides individual therapy and facilitates Virtual Body Image Groups for adults and adolescents with eating disorders, body dissatisfaction, and comorbid disorders. If you are experiencing body image distress or any other psychological turmoil related to a chronic illness, contact Bahar for a counseling appointment.