Preventing obesity and eating disorders

13 March, 2013

Researchers from Flinders University are working on a novel strategy to simultaneously reduce the risk of both eating disorders and obesity among young people.

Believed to be the first attempt in Australia to take a combined prevention approach to eating disorders and obesity, the study has involved a trial of three school-based programs with some 2000 Year 7 and Year 8 students across SA, Victoria and WA over the past two years.

As part of the study, students have been allocated to one of three separate prevention programs consisting of eight lessons in areas such as media representation, body image and self-esteem. The students have been compared to a control group who did not receive a program and followed for 12 months, with the results now being collated.

Chief investigator Dr Simon Wilksch, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow based in the School of Psychology, said the aim of the project was to see whether one or more of the programs could reduce risk factors for eating disorders and obesity at the same time.

"Prevention programs usually only focus on one problem but this has raised concerns with some people suggesting that obesity prevention efforts could worsen young peoples’ body image, while others suggest that eating disorder prevention might not focus enough on the importance of healthy weight," Dr Wilksch said.

"But we now know there are common risk factors for both problems, such as body dissatisfaction and strict dieting, so theoretically a program that can reduce these collective risk factors should reduce the risk of both problems.

"In my view, we should be taking a combined approach to preventing these important problems to ensure we’re not running the risk of sending confusing messages to young people."

If the findings did show that one or more of the programs could prevent the two issues simultaneously, Dr Wilksch said it was hoped the programs would be made widely available throughout Australian schools: "to help as many young people as possible".

"Body image concerns and eating disorders are problems that affect thousands of young Australians," Dr Wilksch said.

"Research tells us that body image is consistently in the top three concerns of adolescent girls and boys, while disordered eating is experienced by nearly a quarter of young Australian women.

"We’re also well aware that obesity conveys a range of negative physical, psychological and economic consequences so it’s imperative we do all we can to prevent these problems and taking a combined approach, we believe, could have more positive results."

Dr Wilksch has just received one of Flinders 2012 Vice-Chancellor’s Awards for Early Career Researchers, an annual program which aims to recognise, reward and promote individuals who have made an outstanding contribution to research at the University since finishing their PhDs.