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Protective Factors against Eating Disorder Risk

Risk factors associated with eating disorders (ED) are complex and layered, involving biological, social and environmental factors. Body dissatisfaction, the internalization of the thin-ideal, dieting, and poor self-concept are examples of risk factors associated with EDs (Stice, 2016). However, simply acknowledging risk factors doesn’t reduce the onset of ED occurrence (Stice, 2016). While knowledge is power (as the old adage goes), it is important to not only identify these various risk factors, but to also consider protective factors to better identify effective strategies related to ED prevention and interventions.

So what is a protective factor? It's a condition or attribute that lessens the likelihood of a risk factor leading to a negative event or occurrence. For example, let’s say a student is having a stressful semester filled with obstacles and hard courses. A risk factor for anxiety-related mental health disorders is chronic stress. However, the student is very well connected to their family, has a great group of friends and a strong sense of belonging in their extracurricular club. Social connectedness is a protective factor that disrupts the process of stress leading to anxiety. Protective factors don’t just decrease a risk factor, they also protect against a negative outcome and increase the likelihood of a positive outcome!

Self-compassion and Self-esteem

Many protective factors have been identified related to EDs and should be considered at the individual, family and systems level. One such factor, self-compassion, has been identified as a protective factor against EDs (Braun, et al, 2016). Self-compassion is extending care, consideration and empathy to oneself even during perceived inadequacy. Practicing self-compassion is critical, as this may intervene in maladaptive behaviors and abnormal cognitions related to EDs (Braun, et al, 2016). Kristin Neff, a psychologist and researcher, provides an alternative to self-judgement and personal shortcomings, suggesting that giving yourself unconditional acceptance and warmth regardless of good or bad situations is essential in practicing self-compassion (Barnard & Curry, 2011).

Another protective factor related to EDs is self-esteem (Argyrides, et al, 2020). Self-esteem or self-worth is related to the positive and negative perceptions we have about ourselves (Argyrides, et al, 2020). When considering self-esteem, positive beliefs about oneself can be protective in avoiding dysfunctional eating behaviors and psychopathology (Argyrides, et al, 2020). Seeking therapy to improve self-awareness, develop mindfulness strategies and addressing negative core self-concepts can be an effective strategy towards improving self-esteem (Abrams, 2017).

Embodiment and Body Positivity

Embodiment-focused agency and social support are other protective factors against EDs and other considerations such as substance abuse disorders (Levine & Smolak, 2016). The term embodiment indicates that an individual is attuned to their body’s needs and has the ability to nourish, connect, care and appreciate their body through physical and mental freedom (Levine & Smolak, 2016). Being appreciative of one’s body and responding to internal body cues such as hunger, fullness, desire, etc. are all a part of embodiment (Levine & Smolak, 2016). Appreciating one’s body is also connected to positive body image; this entails respecting, nurturing, protecting and finding beauty in one’s body irrespective of the “ideals” portrayed in the media (Tylka, & Piran, 2019). Tylka and Piran (2019) said it best: “Embodiment reflects a connection between the mind and body, which have a continual dialectical relationship with the world, and includes positive body connection.”

Other Considerations

Protective factor themes that have been identified within family systems include families that do not overemphasize weight and physical attractiveness (Langdon-Daly & Serpell, 2017). Additionally, families that eat regular meals together also acts as a protective factor against EDs (Langdon-Daly & Serpell, 2017). More generally, social support systems and connectedness are also helpful as a positive and supportive coping strategy (Leonidas & Dos Santos, 2014). Most recently, intuitive eating behaviors have been identified as a protective factor. Stay tuned for more on intuitive eating.

Until next time!


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