Developing anorexia risk factors
In a meta-analysis of the 2,000 plus eating disorder studies that researchers reviewed, anorexia nervosa had the least amount of evidence to point to specific bio-psycho-social risk factors, despite AN being the most severe in terms of clinical outcome, medical complications, and survival. (1)
There is clearly no single factor that can be attributable to “causing” an eating disorder in a given individual. However, researchers have looked to see if there are any risk factors or predisposing factors that seem to be associated with risk for developing an eating disorder.
Disordered eating behavior in childhood as a risk factor for anorexia
A longitudinal study that collected data on 4,760 children evaluated their eating habits in childhood and followed them into adulthood. (2) The study found statistically significant associations between AN and persistent undereating and persistent fussy eating in adolescence, (2) implying that disordered eating in early childhood and adolescence may be a risk factor for the formal development of an eating disorder later in life.
Culture and geography as anorexia risk factors
Developed, western societies have a higher prevalence of AN. It is hypothesized that this might be in part due to the cultural emphasis on thinness, beauty, and self worth. (6)
Female gender as a risk factor for anorexia
On average, girls develop AN between 16-17. (9) Socially, teenagers depend heavily on the opinions of their friend groups, and are more sensitive to bullying and teasing. As they age, their sense of self worth comes more from family and work accomplishments, which is why clinicians see some teens with anorexia nervosa recover in middle age. (6)
Athleticism as an anorexia risk factor
Participation in certain athletics tends to be a risk factor for AN. This is thought to be attributable to the intense pressure put on athletes to succeed, although this has never been proven, and may vary depending on the individual. For example, one study found that dancers have a three times higher risk of suffering from eating disorders compared to their peers. (4) One study showed that as many as 54% of fashion models had a BMI that met criteria for AN. (11) The fashion industry has taken great strides in the last 10 years to reduce the incidence of AN in their models.
Personality traits as an anorexia risk factor
Researchers have found the following personality traits and emotional proclivities to be highly associated with AN: (1)
- Feelings of body dissatisfaction.
- Initial negative personality affect.
- Initial perceived pressure to be thin.
While there is no clear or certain way to predict the development of an eating disorder, there do tend to be some common personality traits, behaviors, and gender differences that might predispose an individual to developing an eating disorder. General familiarity with these risk factors might help friends, family, and clinicians to identify risk factors in their loved ones and patients early to help prevent the long term complications of disordered eating.