Anorexia Nervosa Risk Factors

Many may find it strange to learn that the underlying cause of anorexia is typically not about the food or the number on the scale. Although each person’s eating disorder is individualized and manifests differently, there are some contributing factors that may increase the likelihood of developing anorexia.

Negative Body Image

Most who struggle with anorexia also suffer from an extremely negative or distorted body image where they are unable to see their body in a realistic light. These individuals are especially critical of body shape or size and typically have an ‘ideal body’ they desire to achieve.

Family Dynamics

Family problems and troubled family relationships can play a part in the development of anorexia. Pressure from family members (whether it be for academic or sports related achievements) can compel the individual to seek drastic measures to attain ‘perfection’ in such areas.

Adults often struggle with personal perceptions of an ideal body, and therefore often struggle with their own body image and diets. This can influence children in the development of anorexia if the attitudes toward food, weight, and body image are unhealthy.

Sexual Abuse or Traumatic Events

Sexual abuse is another struggle that can contribute to an increased vulnerability towards the development of anorexia later in life. While sexual abuse does not function as a primary cause of anorexia, it does trigger other psychological problems, which increase the chance of developing anorexia.

Low Self-Esteem

Poor self-esteem is a characteristic of nearly all individuals struggling with anorexia. This lack of personal value and self-worth tends to permeate their entire lives, affecting relationships, jobs, daily interactions, and obviously their mental health.

Major Life Changes

As most people would agree, change is difficult. Yet for individuals suffering from an underlying mental illness, life changes can create emotional stress beyond what they are capable of handling. This creates a heightened need for other ways of coping, and therefore an increased vulnerability to an eating disorder.


Although research shows that no one specific gene can be attributed to the development of anorexia nervosa, studies do point to common personality traits and dispositions among those diagnosed with the eating disorder. Some of these traits include perfectionism, anxiety, and reserved demeanor. These traits by no means automatically predispose someone to anorexia. Instead, they provide insight into genetically inherited attributes that may increase the likelihood of developing anorexia.

Impact On Social/Occupational Functioning

Those who struggle with anorexia nervosa typically experience significant impacts that inhibit their ability to function normally and carry out healthy, productive relationships.


Parents, siblings, and extended family are not immune to the effects of this deadly disease. The process of watching a loved one suffering from anorexia is not only difficult, but it also creates a sense of helplessness, confusion, and general anxiety within the family. A change in behavior for the person with anorexia almost always occurs. They will typically pull away from other family members, isolating themselves. This allows the anorexic to have alone time to act out in his or her eating disorder and evade explanation about weight, food or exercise. Repeated anger outbursts and irritability also accompany the severe dietary restriction that is so common to anorexia nervosa. No one family member is immune to these behavioral and emotional changes.


The severe physical and emotional effects of anorexia can hugely impact workplace or school performance. Lack of nourishment over a prolonged period of time may influence awareness, concentration, and judgment.

Initially, it may be difficult to understand the impact the eating disorder is having on work/school performance, as many anorexics tend to devote themselves fully to their responsibilities at the onset of the disorder. Work or school serves as a form of distraction, and a way to evade loved ones who may suspect the presence of the eating disorder. Solely focusing on work/school and the eating disorder eventually becomes physically and mentally exhausting, which is when the deterioration in functioning is usually seen.

Intimate Relationships and Friendships

Anorexics’ intimate relationships change more dramatically as the individual becomes further emerged in the eating disorder. Emotional instabilities and changes in sexual desire are likely. The deviation from normal communicative functioning certainly strains intimate relationships. Sexual desire also tends to diminish in those struggling with anorexia. This can be a direct result of the decreased communication in the relationship, but factors such as low self-esteem, isolation, and negative body image also play a significant role.

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