Mental health illnesses, including eating disorders, can affect anyone but there are some known risk factors. Research has shown how some mental and physical health conditions or sociological factors may increase the risk of having an eating disorder.
Some of the most significant risk factors are listed below. However, it is important to bear in mind that each person’s experience of an eating disorder is unique to them and, just because they may have one of the conditions or factors below, this does not necessarily mean they will go on to develop an eating disorder. If you are at all concerned about yourself or a loved one, please seek advice from your GP.
Physical and biological
- Gender and age – it’s widely understood that eating disorders tend to be more common in females and especially in younger age groups – from teens through to young adulthood. However, it is also known that many cases of eating disorders go undetected or unreported and so most experts believe the scale of eating disorders is much greater than official statistics show, and across a much broader age range too.
- Eating disorders also occur in men, again of all ages although younger men appear to be at higher risk. Currently, it is believed around 25% of all eating disorders occur in men, but again the true number may be much higher since they may be less likely to seek help and support.
- History of eating disorders, or disordered eating, in first degree family members, eg parent, sibling, child.
- A history of dieting and weight control.
- Type 1 insulin dependent diabetes – due to the focus on calories, weight management, and nutrition etc, those living with type 1 diabetes can be at higher risk of developing an eating disorder known as diabulimia. The charity, Diabetes UK, estimates that in people aged 15 – 30 years, 4 in 10 women and 1 in 10 men take less insulin than they should in order to lose weight.
- Pregnancy – pregnant women are at higher risk of developing an eating disorder due to the changing shape of the body and its potential for impact on body image.
- A history of anxiety, especially generalised anxiety disorder, social phobia, or obsessive-compulsive disorder.
- Perfectionism and setting unreasonably high standards for oneself.
- Prior trauma and/or PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).
- Substance abuse and addiction.
- Bullying, especially during childhood and where it is connected to weight or appearance.
- Media and social influence and stigma – some are particularly susceptible to media messaging regarding body image and weight control.
- Loneliness and isolation – may especially affect those at risk of anorexia.
- Occupation – due to a focus on physicality and/or public image, actors/actresses, models, sportspeople, dancers and fitness professionals may be at higher risk of developing an eating disorder, or associated problems such as excessive exercising.
Identity and ethnicity
- Studies have shown that those who identify as LGBT are at a higher risk of developing an eating disorder. This appears to be especially true for those that identify as a gay or bisexual man.
- There is also evidence of a higher incidence of eating disorders amongst the Black, Asian, and Ethnic Minorities LGBT community compared to White LGBT. In 2018, LGBT charity, Stonewall, reported that in their survey, 11% of White LGBT and 22% of Black, Asian, or Ethnic Minorities LGBT people reported suffering with an eating disorder in the previous year.
Are you worried that you, or a loved one may have an eating disorder? Our Peer Support Team have lived experiences of eating disorders and recovery.
To talk to someone who understands, book a 1:1 support call, we’re here to help.