Who Is Most at Risk to Develop an Eating Disorder?

Did you know that some individuals have an increased likelihood of developing an eating disorder than others? Anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder are the most common eating disorders. Some of these disorders involve restricting food intake, while others involve bingeing on large amounts of food. Individuals may also engage in “purging” or removing calories from the body in an unhealthy way, such as self-induced vomiting, excessive exercise or misusing laxatives.

If you notice a loved one having an extreme preoccupation with food, eating and weight, they may be engaging in disordered eating behaviors. By learning about the predisposed vulnerability and risk factors for developing these conditions, you can better support your loved one and inspire them to look into eating disorder treatment centers.

Potential Causes and Risk Factors of Eating Disorders

It's important to note that there is no one cause of eating disorders. Individuals have unique genetic, biological, social and behavioral factors that may contribute to developing these disorders. Below are some common factors that can increase a person's risk of developing an eating disorder.

1. Biological Risk Factors

Having a family history of eating disorders, usually a parent or sibling, can increase your risk of developing one. Likewise, a family history of hereditary mental health conditions like addiction, anxiety or depression may also increase the risk. Some individuals may have experienced a history of extreme or frequent dieting or weight-control methods early in life.

Diets that include limited eating or disordered eating behaviors often lead to symptoms of starvation, which can perpetuate the cycle of an eating disorder. Individuals with Type 1 diabetes are at increased risk for developing an eating disorder, including bulimia nervosa. This risk may occur as a result of a complex relationship between insulin management, food and body image.

Psychological Risk Factors

Certain personality traits, such as perfectionism, can contribute to disordered eating. Research shows that perfectionism is linked to eating disorders, including binge eating and emotional eating. Individuals who set unrealistic expectations for themselves or feel pressure to meet certain standards from others may be more likely to develop an eating disorder.

Other psychological risk factors include:

  • High levels of stress
  • Co-occurring mental health disorders
  • History of substance use disorder
  • Dissatisfaction with body image and appearance
  • History of trauma or abuse
  • Poor cognitive flexibility, or the ability to adapt
  • Impulsivity
  • Emotional dysregulation
  • Tendency to avoid distressing feelings or thoughts

Social Risk Factors

Exposure to harmful stereotypes, stigmas, discrimination and shame about body image or weight can lead to the development of disordered eating behaviors. Strong influences like social media platforms that promote the “ideal body” and unhealthy weight loss trends can increase an individual's likelihood of engaging in harmful dieting and food restriction.

A study found that social media usage is linked to eating disorders, poor mental health and body image concerns. This study concluded that social media usage is considered a global public health issue, particularly among young people, which may contribute to the higher rate of eating disorders in teens.

Individuals from racial and ethnic minority groups who face culture change, acculturative stress, intergenerational conflict and acculturation to Western culture can have a higher risk of developing an eating disorder.

Vulnerable Populations

Along with the risk factors above, here are some groups that are particularly at risk for developing an eating disorder.

  • Girls and women: Eating disorders in women and girls are twice as likely to occur than in men and boys. This gap is likely due to the social factors that have led many women to develop weight issues and body dissatisfaction. A study found that four out of five women are dissatisfied with their appearance, while 63% of high school girls report dieting to lose weight.

  • Bullying victims: Individuals who are teased or bullied about their weight may be more likely to develop disordered eating. Those who have been made to feel ashamed of their appearance or weight by others, including authoritative figures and healthcare professionals, may also be at risk.
  • LGBTQ+ individuals: Sexual minorities are more vulnerable to developing an eating disorder due to unique concerns about body image, sociocultural body ideals and gender dysphoria. Research shows that transgender individuals are more likely to be diagnosed with an eating disorder or engage in disordered eating than cisgender individuals.
  • Athletes: Young adolescent and adult athletes have an increased risk of developing an eating disorder, particularly among competitive and elite athletes. This heightened risk may be due to imbalances in energy demand and caloric intake, low body satisfaction and distorted body image.

How to Support Individuals Who Might Have an Eating Disorder

Observing disordered eating behaviors in your loved one can be concerning. Whether you're a family member, partner or friend, it's not always easy to know the right thing to say. Below are some strategies and tips you can implement when talking to your loved one or encouraging them to seek eating disorder therapy.

1. Ask What You Can Do

Every individual is different, so it's important to avoid assumptions about what your loved one needs. Ask what you can do to support them, such as helping them find a doctor, therapist or program or accompanying them to tour a treatment facility.

2. Express Your Concern

It's not uncommon for individuals to have a negative reaction or feel defensive when approached about their eating habits. You can make your loved one feel safe by directly expressing your concern and desire to understand in a compassionate, caring way. Describe the specific disordered eating symptoms or behaviors you've noticed.

3. Avoid Judgments or Criticism

It's natural to want to offer advice to your loved one, but it's best to leave that to the professionals. Giving them overly simplistic solutions, such as “just start eating,” or “just stop,” can be very harmful and make them feel frustrated. Remember, it's not your job to have all the answers, being there for them is enough!

Avoid mentioning their weight or appearance. Focus on their overall mood or any unusual behavior or relationship concerns. Think before you speak to avoid unintentionally adding stigma, shame or judgment to the conversation.

4. Remind Them of the Benefits of Change

Build up their self-esteem by offering some kind words and reassurance, telling them how much you value having them in your life. Remind them that eating disorders are treatable, and change is possible. You can also help motivate them by identifying positive reasons for change. Overall, be patient yet persistent with your loved one, as agreeing to treatment can take time.

Why Trust Diamond House for Eating Disorder Recovery?

At Diamond House, we want you to know that you're not alone. We're committed to providing a supportive, safe and home-like environment for all of our clients to start their road to recovery. If you or a loved one are experiencing stress or mental health concerns as a result of an eating disorder, help is available.

Our licensed mental health professionals will create personalized treatment modalities to help you feel better and achieve your recovery goals. We're dedicated to giving you the care you deserve while supporting you as you adjust to your new way of life. We'll do everything we can to help enrich your life with compassionate, empathetic care.

Let Us Support You on Your Journey to Well-Being

Recovery from an eating disorder is possible. At Diamond House, we prioritize overcoming societal stigmas and shame associated with mental health conditions by educating our clients and their loved ones. Our treatment programs are designed to nurture healing and understanding, all while meeting your unique needs.

We understand that everyone's mental health journey is different, which is why we offer flexibility with intensive outpatient and partial hospitalization programs. We want you to be able to maintain your work and home responsibilities during treatment while building supportive connections. We encourage you to reach out to us to start your path to wellness.