When is an Eating Disorder Likely to Develop?

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Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness [1]. It’s helpful to understand when an eating disorder is most likely to develop because it’s an important risk factor to be aware of. This post will go over when someone is most likely to develop an eating disorder.

Young People & Eating Disorders

The rates of eating disorders are higher for certain populations. One group that is especially at risk is young people [1]. Research shows that eating disorders are most likely to start between the ages of 14 to 25 [1]. Girls in this age range are significantly more likely to struggle with an eating disorder, but adolescent boys are also impacted.

There isn’t one single reason that someone has an eating disorder. These are complex conditions. There is a variety of things that can lead someone to struggle with disordered eating.

Risk Factors for Eating Disorders

  • Negative body image
  • History of physical or sexual abuse
  • Participating in weight-class (i.e wrestling) or aesthetic (i.e ballet, figure skating) sports
  • Family history of eating disorders
  • Untreated mental illnesses, such as depression or anxiety
  • Low self-esteem
  • Personality traits like perfectionism of rigid thinking [2]

These risk factors aren’t unique to young people. While no one fully understands why eating disorders tend to crop up during adolescence, there are a few possible explanations. The adolescent years are a major phase of physical and psychological development.

Risk Factors in Young People

Puberty is in full effect during this time, which can increase the amount of time someone spends thinking about their body as they adjust to these changes. Adolescence is also a time of significant sexual development. Individuals in this age range start to care about attracting their preferred gender. This combination of bodily changes and sexual interest can make body image feel significantly more important than it was before.

Young people are also flooded with images and messages in the media about what their body should look like. Research shows that media’s influence has a significant impact on someone’s relationship with their own body and can influence their body image [2].

While eating disorders may appear to be about food and body image, if you read between the lines they tend to be an attempt to cope with distressing emotions [2]. This phase of development can be uniquely stressful.

Athletes in High School and College

Research shows that eating disorders are more common in athletes [2]. While people of all ages play sports, these activities tend to reach peak competition during high school and college.

This can lead to certain disordered behaviors as people seek to reach their peak performance. This may be especially true in sports where body shape and size is emphasized, such as in weight-class or aesthetic sports. Someone may turn to disordered behaviors in order to maintain a certain shape or size that they feel is needed to participate in their sport.

Warning Signs & Symptoms in Young People

There are some warning signs and symptoms to look out for. Some of these are:

  • Increased focus on body image, weight, dieting, or exercise
  • Refusing to eat certain foods, such as all carbs, sugar, or fats
  • Skipping meals or only eating small portions of foods
  • Isolating from friends, family, or activities
  • Mood swings
  • Sleep problems
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Frequent body-checking, which is doing things such as frequently looking in the mirror or pinching skin in order to check the size of your body
  • Evidence of binge eating, such as finding hidden food wrappers or large amounts of food being eaten
  • Noticeable changes in weight, whether weight loss or gain
  • Intense fear of gaining weight or becoming fat
  • Rigid or obsessive exercise routines, especially insisting on exercising even if sick or injured
  • Frequently going to the bathroom during meals or shortly after meals [3]

There are a wide range of signs and symptoms of eating disorders. If you notice any of these behaviors in yourself or a loved one, it’s important to get help.

Eating Disorder View

There are many treatment options available for young people. A common barrier that young people experience is not wanting to leave school to get help.

This is a valid concern, but there are several different levels of care that are available some of which can be worked into a school schedule. It’s also worth mentioning that it’s super important to get help. Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses.

If left untreated, they can cause significant medical and psychological issues. It’s more important to take a temporary break from school and other responsibilities to get care. This can be life saving.


Resources:

[1] Anorexia and Bulimia Care. (n.d). About eating disorders. Retrieved October 13th, 2021 from https://www.anorexiabulimiacare.org.uk/about/about-eating-disorders

[2] American Academy of Pediatrics. (2015, November 11). Is Your Teen at Risk for Developing an Eating Disorder? Retrieved October 13th, 2021 from https://www.healthychildren.org/English/health-issues/conditions/emotional-problems/Pages/Is-Your-Teen-at-Risk-for-Developing-an-Eating-Disorder.aspx

[3] National Eating Disorders Association. (n.d). Warning Signs and Symptoms. Retrieved October 13th, 2021 from https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/warning-signs-and-symptoms


The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published on November 17, 2021. Published on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved on November 17, 2021 by Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC

About Samantha Bothwell, LMFT

Samantha Bothwell, LMFT, is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, writer, explorer, and lipstick aficionado. She became a therapist after doing her own healing work so she could become whole after spending many years living with her mind and body disconnected. She has focused her clinical work to support the healing process of survivors of sexual violence and eating disorders. She is passionate about guiding people in their return to their truest Self so they can live their most authentic, peaceful life.