According to the National Eating Disorders Association, 20 million women and 10 million men in the U.S. will suffer from an eating disorder at some time in their lives. If you’re concerned about yourself or a loved one, learning about the most common eating disorder risk factors can help you determine whether there may be a serious issue. As well as learning anorexia risk factors and characteristics that make you more likely to suffer from other eating disorders such as bulimia or binge eating disorder, finding out about the causes and potential consequences of the conditions can give you the motivation to take the next step and find support.

Causes of Eating Disorders: Why Do People Develop Eating Disorders?

The causes of eating disorders aren’t as simple as you might think. There are many factors that can contribute to the problem, so it doesn’t make too much sense to talk about eating disorder causes like they’re fixed and definite. For example, genetic susceptibility is one of the most important eating disorder risk factors, but many people with a family history of eating disorders don’t end up suffering from one.

Eating disorder causes work in concert with one another. It’s an interdependent combination of genetic, psychological, social and biological factors that cause eating disorders. As our knowledge of neuroscience progresses, it may become possible to pin down some specific eating disorder causes, but at present the closest we can come is to identify risk factors for developing an eating disorder.

General Eating Disorder Risk Factors

While some risk factors are specific to one condition, most are more general and could lead to any specific disorder. A review of the evidence on the topic found that female gender, early childhood eating issues, concerns about weight or body shape, sexual abuse, a negative self-view and general psychological issues were all associated with the risk of eating disorders. Individual studies have found other potential risk factors, such as parental separation, eating alone and social withdrawal, although these are less well-established than the others.

It’s worth stressing that having some eating disorder risk factors doesn’t mean you will develop an eating disorder, and not having any doesn’t mean you definitely won’t have an eating disorder. For example, despite females being at greater risk for eating disorders, many men still suffer from them, and you may develop issues even if you didn’t have problems with eating as a kid.

Risk Factors for Specific Eating Disorders

Anorexia risk factors were assessed in a 2009 study, which found that a history of undereating, problems feeding as an infant and having a mother with symptoms of depression were associated with anorexia. Protective factors are the opposite of anorexia risk factors, and the same study found that having a mother with a higher body mass index (BMI) and having high self-esteem reduced one’s risk for developing anorexia.

Similarly, some specific risk factors apply to bulimia, binge eating disorder and other eating disorders. For bulimia, regular dieting or fasting, internalizing the notion that being thin is the “ideal” body type, and negative affect — which broadly means showing negative emotions and having a negative self-image — are established risk factors. For binge eating disorder, the social pressure to be thin is one of the only specific risk factors identified.

Dangers of Eating Disorders

Being at risk of an eating disorder is something to take seriously. While it might not seem like a life-threatening issue, unfortunately, it often is. Anorexia is particularly serious, and its effects include weakness and fatigue, severe dehydration, osteoporosis (brittle bones), slowed heart rate and low blood pressure. These last two are especially dangerous anorexia risks, and the combination is one of the reasons anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric condition.

The binging and purging in bulimia can lead to rupturing of the esophagus or stomach, and the dehydration and electrolyte loss from purging can lead to potentially fatal heart problems.

Binge eating disorder also carries serious risks, but these are ultimately the same as the risks for obesity. These include heart disease, diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure.

Spot Eating Disorders and Find the Support You Need

The pressure to obtain unrealistically trim figures flaunted in photoshopped glamor shots can have serious consequences, and young girls are especially vulnerable. Learning to spot common risk factors for eating disorders and understanding the dangers helps you determine when somebody needs help and why getting it matters.


Choose a better life. Choose recovery.