Who gets an eating disorder?

Key points:

  • Eating disorders affect people of any age, gender, sexual orientation, cultural or socio-economic background
  • There is no single cause of eating disorders, but there are many risk factors which increase the likelihood of someone developing one

Many people think that only white, middle class girls get eating disorders. This is a myth! Eating disorders don’t discriminate – they can affect someone from any age, gender, sexual orientation, cultural or socio-economic background.

Although eating disorders are more common among young women than men, research indicates that 1 in 4 people experiencing an eating disorder are male, with the rates of men and women with Binge Eating Disorder being nearly equal. Unfortunately, many men go undiagnosed due to stigma, lack of awareness (including from health practitioners) and their own reluctance to seek help.

The most common age for the development of an eating disorder is during the teenage and young adult years. However, they can appear or reappear at any age, commonly at times of higher stress or life transitions (such as during relationship difficulties, menopause or pregnancy for women).

Risk factors for developing an eating disorder

Although eating disorders don’t have a single cause, there are certain factors which can put someone at a higher risk of developing an eating disorder.

These include:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Feelings of inadequacy
  • Depression or anxiety
  • Ineffective coping strategies
  • Perfectionism
  • Competitiveness
  • Poor body image
  • Our culture of idealising particular body shapes with an emphasis on appearances
  • Dieting
  • Traumatic life events
  • Peer pressure
  • Abuse, bullying

In addition to these social and psychological factors, research suggests that eating disorders may have a genetic component. Biological factors such as hormonal changes and chemical imbalances in the brain are also risk factors for developing an eating disorder.