Parents often blame themselves when their child has an eating disorder. Or they blame the child. The cause of eating disorders is way more complicated than faulting parents or the child. When parents know about risk factors for eating disorders, they recognize just how complex these disorders are.

Risk factors for eating disorders come from both Nature (genetics, biology) and Nurture (environment, 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 is way more complicated than that.

That means there is no single gene that CAUSES eating disorders, nor are cultural pressures for thinness THE cause of eating disorders.

The three categories of risk factors for eating disorders that every parent needs to know come from:

1. Biology/Genetics (Nature)

2. Psychology (Nurture) and

3. Culture (Nurture)

Factors from all three categories combine and result in an eating disorder.

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 family member, friend, or pet. Or a parents’ divorce. Maybe a geographic move of a best friend. Or some other transition, such as to a new school. Even a medical problem, be it a chronic disease diagnosis, surgery, or an injury, can be a trigger.

BIOLOGICAL/GENETIC risk factors for eating disorders:

Biological risks predispose people to eating disorders. Genetics account for 40-60% of liability for eating disorders.

  1. Genetic relative: Having a first degree relative (e.g. parents, sibling) with an eating disorder is a risk factor.

2. Relative with a mental health condition: Having a relative with depression, anxiety, substance abuse, or other psychiatric illness increases risk.

3. Early menarche: Girls whose first period is earlier than their peers’ are at higher risk.

PSYCHOLOGICAL risk factors for eating disorders include:

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

2. Body Image: Negative body image is common. But not everyone with body dissatisfaction develops an eating disorder.

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

3. Anxiety Disorder: Anxiety symptoms often occur well before an eating disorder develops. More than 2/3 of people with anorexia have anxiety disorder symptoms first.

SOCIAL/CULTURAL risk factors for eating disorders include:

  1. Diet Culture: The number one risk factor in this category is the societal pressure to be thin. Diet Culture is the 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 body.

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

    2. Teasing: Approximately 60% of people report a history of being teased.

    3. Appearance ideal internalization. Striving to have the socially-defined “ideal body” is harmful. Dieting becomes normalized as a ticket to success.

Eating disorders develop for lots of reasons. Biological, psychological, and cultural factors, along with a triggering event, create a perfect storm.

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. Focus instead on non-appearance related qualities. Don’t label food as good or bad. Food is just food. Food doesn’t have morals attached to it. 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% preventable, you can absolutely decrease the risk for your child. And for yourself.

For more information, please contact me.