Risk Factors for Eating Disorders

There are many factors that can cause a person to develop an eating disorder. Some people may develop eating disorders without any of these factors present, but typically the more risk factors you have, the greater likelihood you’ll have of developing an eating disorder.

Some of the main risk factors for eating disorders are:

•    Gender. Females are much more likely than males to develop eating disorders, but many men suffer from eating disorders as well. A recent Harvard study revealed that 25 percent of people suffering from anorexia and bulimia are men, and 40 percent of men with eating disorders are binge eaters.

•    Age.  Eating disorders can occur at any age but are much more common between the ages of 12 to 25. The onset of anorexia typically occurs in adolescence and peaks at ages 13 and 14 and at 17 and 18, but recent studies show that over the last few decades the rate of anorexia among young adult women has tripled.

•    Early puberty. Children who undergo puberty earlier than their peers are at a greater risk of eating disorders and other emotional problems. Puberty often includes a normal increase of body fat, which can make them feel under greater pressure to restrict their food intake so that they appear the same as their peers who aren’t maturing yet.

•    Certain personalities. People with eating disorders tend to share similar personality traits, such as low self-esteem and perfectionism. Certain personality disorders are also common and include borderline personality disorder, avoidant personality disorder and narcissism.

•    Emotional disorders. People with depression, anxiety disorders (such as panic disorder, PTSD, generalized anxiety disorder) and obsessive-compulsive disorder are more likely to have an eating disorder. Research shows that 40 to 96 percent of all people suffering from eating disorders also suffer from depression and anxiety disorders. Among those who suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder, 69 percent are anorexic and 33 percent are bulimic.

•    Dieting. Dieting is often the jumping point for many eating disorders. People who lose weight are often reinforced by positive comments that can encourage them to take their dieting too far. Some studies suggest that vegetarianism in adolescence may be a risk factor for eating disorders because vegetarian teens are four times as likely to intensively diet and eight times as likely to use laxatives as their non-vegetarian peers.

•    Family influences. Family often plays a big role in whether a person develops an eating disorder. Negative family influences such as being teased about appearance, overly critical parents and siblings, and pressure to be thin are all risk factors. Studies and research also show that eating disorders are more prevalent in people who had one or more parents who were overprotective, detached, critical, had a psychiatric disorder, or abused alcohol or drugs. Women who had mothers with a history of eating disorders are also at a higher risk of developing one themselves.

•    Certain professions and sports. Professions such as acting, modeling and the military have higher rates of eating disorders. Athletes who participate in sports where performance is based on weight, such as gymnasts, dancers, wrestlers, runners, jockeys and cheerleaders, also have a higher risk of developing an eating disorder. Many coaches, and the athletes themselves, may encourage thinness in order to gain a competitive edge, which can lead to unhealthy behaviors.

•    History of sexual abuse. It’s very common for women with eating disorders to have a history of sexual abuse. Studies have found that as much as 35 percent of women with bulimia have suffered sexual abuse.