An Exploration of the Role of Social Support in Health Promotion and Eating Disorder Prevention

Friday, 26 July 2013: 8:50 AM

Kathryn D. Weaver, RN, PhD
Faculty of Nursing, University of New Brunswick, Fredericton, NB, Canada

Learning Objective 1: Describe the vital role of social support in eating disorder development among female university students.

Learning Objective 2: Compare and contrast behaviours associated with high levels of self-advocacy and social support to behaviours associated with a paucity of self-advocacy and social support


To explore the relationship between social support and eating disorder development within a female, nonclinical population. Eating disorders are commonplace within many university settings, particularly among female university students. The outcomes associated with eating disorders can significantly impact the growth and development associated with this crucial stage of emerging adulthood and have the potential to impede academic and future career endeavours. To best assist students, it is vital to build a comprehensive understanding of their experiences with eating disorder symptoms and their needs and preferences for support.


Survey responses from 176 female university students within 3 universities in New Brunswick, Canada were examined for measures of eating attitudes, coping, social support, and support seeking behaviours. From this quantitative sample, a subset of 22 qualitative interviews were conducted to develop a fuller conceptualization of social support as perceived by university students struggling with eating disorder symptomologies.


Individuals lacking a readily accessible supportive social network were significantly less likely to tell health professionals about their eating issues and were slower to achieve recovery. The complementary qualitative analysis enabled the construction of a typology of eating disorder recovery progress developed through thematic exploration of (a) the type and degree of social support and (b) the level of self-advocacy experienced by participants. Results highlighted recovery as an evolving and contextual process achieved when self-advocacy efforts were mirrored by support from connected others, while a lack of such advocacy fostered concealment of illness.


Social support and self-advocacy play a vital role within the process of recovery from an eating disorder. As part of a research agenda investigating secrecy, social support and health seeking in eating disorders, this study aids in the overall understanding of eating disorder progression and has contributed to the development of appropriate and effective helping resources.