Eating disorders are serious illnesses that can lead to malnutrition and even death. They are a type of mental health disorder that affects people of all ages, genders, ethnic and racial groups.
Often, eating disorders start during adolescence and young adulthood. But they can also start in later life, especially for those who struggle with body image or social anxiety.
Risk factors can include genetics, biology, and psychological or emotional health issues. They may interact with each other differently in each person, but there are common risks that apply to all eating disorders.
1. Family history
Individuals who have a family history of an eating disorder, or who know of someone in their family who has an eating disorder, are more likely to develop an eating disorder than those who do not. This is not a guarantee, though; many who have a family history do not develop an eating disorder.
2. Personality traits
Several personality characteristics, such as anxiety, perfectionism, or moodiness, have been associated with eating disorders. Some individuals inherit these characteristics from their parents, while others acquire them from their siblings or other people in their lives.
3. Social and cultural settings
People who have limited access to nutritious foods, such as those in poverty or in poor or deprived neighborhoods, are more likely to suffer from an eating disorder than people with more supportive environments. Additionally, people from racial and ethnic minority groups who experience rapid Westernization are more likely to develop an eating disorder.
4. Body image dissatisfaction
A person’s body image is a complex issue that encompasses how they feel about their body and how they see themselves in relation to an ideal body appearance. A positive or neutral body image is one that accepts and appreciates the way they look, while a negative or depressed body image is an extreme or distorted view of the way they look.
5. Stress and acculturation
A traumatic event, such as a divorce or an illness, can trigger an eating disorder. This can be a significant event in a person’s life, or it can be an isolated incident that causes the onset of an eating disorder without any other contributing factors.
6. Psychological and emotional health problems
Depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and low self-esteem are all known to increase the likelihood of an eating disorder. Some studies have found that women with a history of sexual abuse are more likely to develop an eating disorder than women who are not abused.
7. Physical activity and sports participation
A person’s physical fitness can influence how they respond to certain types of food. This can increase their risk of developing an eating disorder, particularly if they participate in sports that focus on appearance or weight.
All sports can contribute to an eating disorder, but some sports are more likely to result in disordered eating than others. College athletes are at particular risk of developing an eating disorder. In one study, researchers found that at least a third of female college athletes were struggling with some form of eating disorder.