9 Risk Factors For Eating Disorders Every Parent Needs To Know

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Parents often blame themselves when their child has an eating disorder. Or, they blame the child.

However, the cause of eating disorders is way more complicated than faulting either the parents or the child.

Risk factors for eating disorders come from both nature (genetics and biology) and nurture (environment and culture). The factors combine in a particular way that then leads to eating disorders.

So, the cause of an eating disorder is never just one thing. It's way more complicated than that.

When parents know about risk factors for eating disorders, they can recognize just how complex these disorders are.

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Eating disorders in teens are linked to various risk factors.

There's no single gene that causes eating disorders, nor are cultural pressures for thinness the cause of eating disorders.

There are three categories of risk factors for eating disorders:

Biology/genetics (nature)
Psychology (nurture)
Culture (nurture)

Factors from all three categories combined tend to result in an eating disorder.

Eating disorders and triggering events.

Triggering events distinguish why some people with risk factors from the three categories develop eating disorders and some don’t.

What’s a triggering event?

Well, it could be something like a loss, such as the death of a family member, friend, or pet. Or a parents’ divorce.

Maybe the move of a best friend. Or some other transition, such as transferring to a new school.

Even a medical problem — be it a chronic illness diagnosis, surgery, or an injury — can be a trigger.

There are biological, genetic, psychological, social, and cultural risk factors of editing disorders.

Biological risks predispose people to have eating disorders. Genetics account for 40 to 60 percent of the liability for eating disorders.

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As parents, you need to know about these 9 risk factors of eating disorders.

1. Genetic relative.

Does your child have a first-degree relative with an eating disorder? This includes parents and siblings. 

A genetic relative's struggle with an eating disorder is considered a biological or genetic risk factor. This could point to developing disordered eating in their lifetime, either as children, teens, or well into their adult years. 

2. Relative with a mental health condition.

Blood relatives with mental illness, such as depression, anxiety, substance abuse, or other psychiatric illness, could pose a biological or genetic risk factor to your child developing an eating disorder. 

3. An early first period.

Girls whose first period is earlier than their peers’ tend to be at a higher risk for disordered eating. An early first period is also considered a biological risk factor.  

4. Personality characteristics.

Certain personality traits increase risk. The biggest one is perfectionism. Others include high sensitivity, low distress tolerance, and behavioral inflexibility.

Personality traits that could indicate a higher liklihood of teens developing an eating disorder are considered psychological risk factors.

5. Negative body image.

Negative body image is common. But not everyone with body dissatisfaction develops an eating disorder.

People who develop an eating disorder have an even worse body image than the norm. They also tend to internalize societal ideals of weight and appearance more.

6. Anxiety disorders.

Anxiety symptoms often occur well before an eating disorder develops. More than two-thirds of people with anorexia have anxiety disorder symptoms first.

7. Diet culture.

The number-one risk factor in the societal and cultural category is the pressure to be thin. Diet culture is a toxic system of beliefs that idealizes thinness and connects weight and morality.

Weight discrimination is the norm in diet culture. So is categorizing food as "good" or "bad."

Living in diet culture negatively affects your relationship to your own body and your children’s relationship with their bodies.

Dieting is ineffective for sustained weight loss in almost 100 percent of people. When dieting no longer works, disordered eating behaviors such as fasting, restricting, and purging can easily develop.

8. Bullying.

According to a 2019 study, victims of bullying and teasing were often found to be at a higher risk of developing eating disorders.

Supporting and protecting kids who are experiencing bullying is crucial to protecting their mental health and well-being. 

9. Internalization of an ideal appearance.

Striving to have the socially-defined "ideal body" is harmful. Dieting becomes normalized as a ticket to the success of achieving this body.

Even if your child experiences a "perfect storm" of eating disorder risks, there are ways you can help.

When biological, psychological, and cultural factors, come together alongside a triggering event, they create the perfect storm for a teen to develop an eating disorder.

Fortunately, there are little, everyday things you can do to decrease the risk of an eating disorder for your child.

For example, don’t comment on your own or other people’s weight. Instead, focus on non-appearance-related qualities.

Don’t label food as "good" or "bad." Food is just food — they don't have morals attached to them.

Eat a full range and variety of food and enjoy it! Encourage your child to do so, too.

If you, yourself, have an eating disorder, please get treatment. You deserve that and so does your child.

While eating disorders may not be 100 percent preventable, you can absolutely decrease the risk for your child and for yourself.

Eating disorders are very common.
According to the ANAD (Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders), eating disorders affect 9 percent of the population worldwide, and 28.8 million Americans will have an eating disorder in their lifetime.

Eating disorders disproportionately affect BIOPC, LGBTQ+, and people with disabilities. Second to only opioid overdose, eating disorders are among the deadliest mental illnesses with 10,200 deaths each year as the direct result of an eating disorder — that’s one death every 52 minutes.

If you or a loved one are struggling with disordered eating, contact the National Eating Disorder Helpline’s toll-free phone number: 1-800-931-2237.

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Dr. Elayne Daniels is a renowned psychologist who works with men and women on body image and sexuality. To contact her or to learn more about the services she offers, contact her on her website or send her an email.​

This article was originally published at Dr Elayne Daniels' blog. Reprinted with permission from the author.