We have talked about the numerous categories of risk factors for disordered eating and eating disorders. These included genetic, religious, familial, societal, social, psychological, age, and personality factors. The final category is physical elements that can contribute to risk. While there is some overlap here with genetic, familial, and societal considerations, the category does merit its own discussion.
One area of physical risk has to do with dieting. Any adolescent girl that is on a diet is at increased risk for developing either disordered eating or an eating disorder. Whether the diet is started as a means to get healthy or in order to drop a few pounds, it significantly increases a girl’s risk. As individuals’ progress in their diet, they start to receive increased attention for their weight loss and appearance. This can encourage further drastic weight loss methods in order to ensure continued praise and accolades. In fact, any significant dietary weight loss increases overall risk.
Additionally, there are studies which find that starting any regular exercise program during adolescence can also fuel risk, as these tend to increase overall body dissatisfaction and lower self-esteem. This seems counter intuitive, but scientific studies have found that any significant dietary and health behaviors developed during adolescence can contribute to weight struggles and body shape issues lasting throughout one’s life. Athletes or those who play in competitive sports of any kind are also at increased overall risk.
Gender is another physical risk factor, as women and girls are found to have higher prevalence of body-image concerns and a greater propensity for eating disorder development that can lead to inappropriate dieting behaviors. During adolescence the risk for eating disorders is further increased. And finally, being overweight is a risk factor for certain eating disorders as well.
Clearly, the psychopathology of eating disorders is complicated and exact causes are difficult to pinpoint. Their onset arises from the interplay of multiple types of risk factors and other circumstances that would generally be considered protective, such as religion. However, one thing is clear, eating disorders are serious medical conditions associated with numerous and devastating short- and long-term physiological and psychological complications.
This is why prevention is so vital and so needed. Prevention programs have proven successful in reducing eating disorder incidence and growth. Further, prevention programs work to help establish more positive priorities for women, help support their body image, assist in setting more positive and beneficial priorities for them, and work to increase resilience to negative messages. Sadly, studies find that girls as young as 5 or 6 years old are already struggling with body image and weight issues. The earlier we can intervene with education, awareness, and prevention programs, the more successful our results.