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Risk factors

Biological risk factors

  • The ratio of women to men who are diagnosed with an eating disorder is 10 to one.
  • Women are far more likely to develop an eating disorder. Lifetime prevalence rates are:   
    • 0.9 per cent of women and 0.3 per cent of men develop anorexia nervosa
    • 1.5 per cent of women and 0.5 per cent of men develop bulimia nervosa
    • 3.5 per cent of women and 2.0 per cent of men develop binge eating disorder
  • Digestive-related disorders and diabetes have been found to be related to increased rates of eating disorders.
  • Certain heritable personality traits (e.g. obssessional, sensitive to criticism) have been found to be related to eating disorders.

Psychological risk factors

  • low self-esteem
  • perfectionism
  • poor body image
  • unhealthy coping strategies to deal with problems

History of sexual abuse
A history of sexual abuse is thought to be related to the development of an eating disorder. It should be noted that childhood abuse is related to numerous mental health problems in adulthood (please see the Trauma section). Nonetheless, it is thought that an eating disorder may develop as a result of negative feelings about their body related to the abuse. Alternatively, the eating disorder might be a form of punishment against the body that was abused. Or, the eating disorder may be a way to cope with intolerable feelings related to the abuse. For example, establishing a sense of control over their body that has been violated, or symbolically purging painful feelings about the abuse. 

Sociocultural factors

  • Athletic culture
    Athletic activities that emphasize appearance and impose weight restrictions (e.g. gymnastics, wrestling, figure skating) tend to have higher rates of athletes with eating disorders.
    • one Norwegian study found much higher rates of eating disorders in elite female and male athletes, compared to the general population (20 per cent of elite female athletes compared to nine per cent of women in the general population, and eight per cent of elite male athletes compared to 0.5 per cent of men in the general population)
  • Media
    We are bombarded with messages in the media equating slimness with beauty and fat with countless negative traits.
  • Dieting
    Dieting is normalized and encouraged from a young age. Dieting is related to the development of eating disorders.
    • one study found that almost 30 per cent of Grade 9 and 10 girls engaged in weight-loss behaviours
    • teenage girls who diet are 18 times more likely to develop an eating disorder than those who do not diet


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Our Newsletter

Eating Disorders

Eating disorders: a serious health concern for women

The vicious cycle

Types of eating disorders

Risk factors

Getting help


Discussion Groups

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General Health Discussion Forum

  • A publication of:
  • Women's College Hospital