Risk Factors & Predictors of Anorexia 

There are a number of indicators that you may be more susceptible to developing anorexia nervosa (AN). Everything from your individual physiology, to the way you think about your body, to your cultural upbringing can all be potential anorexia risk factors.

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But even if you struggle with some of these situations, help for the condition is always available.

Biological Predictors & Risk Factors of Anorexia

One of the most recently identified anorexia risk factors is genetics

While research into the specifics is ongoing, it’s been found that anorexia generally tends to run in families, or among “clusters” of relatives who share genetic makeup. [1] Essentially, you can be biologically wired to have a higher risk of developing anorexia nervosa or other eating disorders.

That’s primarily thanks to the way several types of genes are expressed within families, including those that control the way you respond to stress, and those involved in the brain’s reward center.


The dysregulation of serotonin, an important compound involved in many aspects of eating and pleasure, has also been found to play a significant role in the development of anorexia. [2] This type of dysfunction has been linked not only to the eating behaviors behind anorexia but possibly also the disturbance in body image perception that makes it such a big anorexia risk factor.


And hormones, in general, play a big part in the onset of anorexia nervosa. Many people with the disorder first start exhibiting signs around the time of puberty, in many cases due to the number of major hormonal changes going on at that point. [3]

Psychological Predictors or Risk Factors of Anorexia

While the line between neurobiology and psychology isn’t always clear, there are a number of anorexia risk factors that are more closely tied to mental health than physiology.

One of the most common psychological anorexia risk factors is body image disturbance (BID). 

This condition occurs when a person has a perception of their body that does not align with reality. Someone struggling with AN, for example, may perceive themselves to be overweight when they in fact occupy a much smaller body.

People who struggle with anorexia nervosa also have a high co-occurrance of other mental health conditions. Nearly two-thirds of people with anorexia nervosa in one study were found to simultaneously struggle with an anxiety disorder. [4] And of those anxiety issues, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) was found to be the most common in people with AN. [4]

Social Predictors or Risk Factors of Anorexia

In the past, it was believed that a person’s social upbringing was the primary cause of anorexia. The general thinking was that growing up in a culture that idolized thinner bodies would drive a person to focus on weight and dieting until it became an obsession. 

As science—and scientific tools—have progressed, more and more evidence has emerged linking AN to genetic factors. But there are still some social influences that may play a role in the disorder’s development.

Experiencing trauma or traumatic events earlier in life has proven to be a big anorexia risk factor. [5]  This is especially true for people whose genes predispose them to certain reactions to stress.

And while studying family dynamics can be especially tricky, the way qualities like self-esteem and perfectionism are modeled in the home have also been tied in some research to the development of anorexia. [6]

How to Seek Help for Anorexia

Even if you or a loved one are exhibiting these anorexia risk factors, that doesn’t mean you’re beyond help.

Finding a therapist you can talk to about your concerns may be a great first step, especially if you haven’t yet started expressing patterns of disordered eating. But if the issue becomes more serious, it’s important to seek out further help as quickly as possible. 

Anorexia nervosa is a dangerous disorder, and can, unfortunately, lead to death if not treated. 

Still, finding the right kind of help can be difficult. If you don’t know where to begin, a therapist or other mental health professional can help guide you in the next steps that best fit your needs.


  1. Poyastro Pinheiro A, Root T, Bulik C. (2009). The Genetics of Anorexia Nervosa: Current Findings and Future Perspectives. International Journal of Child and Adolescent Health, 2(2):153-164.
  2. Riva, Giuseppe. (2016). Neurobiology of Anorexia Nervosa: Serotonin Dysfunctions Link Self-Starvation With Body Image Disturbances Through an Impaired Body Memory. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 10:600.
  3. Klump, Kelly. (2013). Puberty as a Critical Risk Period for Eating Disorders: A Review of Human and Animal Studies. Hormonal Behavior, 64(2):399-410.
  4. Kaye, Walter, Bulik, Cynthia, Thornton, Laura, Barbarich, Nicole, Masters, Kim. (2004). Comorbidity of anxiety disorders with anorexia and bulimia nervosa. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 161(12): 2215-21.
  5. Tagay, Sefik, Schlottbohm, Ellen, Reyes-Rodriguez, Mae Lynn, Epic, Nevena, Senf, Wolfgang. (2015). Eating Disorders, Trauma, PTSD and Psychosocial Resources. Journal of Eating Disorders, 22(1):33-49.
  6. Engelsen, BK. (2002).  Social influences in the development of anorexia nervosa. A case study. Eating and Weight Disorders, 7(3):249-55.

Last Update | 12 - 2 - 2022

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