Why Are Women More Vulnerable to Eating Disorders?

Middle-aged woman stressing over her eating disorder

When it comes to eating disorders, there are many misconceptions about these fatal psychiatric illnesses. Among them is the idea that females are more vulnerable to eating disorders and only seem to develop in young, adolescent females. Another stereotype created about eating disorders is that these are not actual problematic disorders but rather, diseases of “vanity”.

Fortunately, ongoing research in the field of eating disorders has helped bring a greater understanding about these illnesses, as well as improve treatments and prognosis for those who may be struggling.

Recent research from the Department of Psychology at York University in the United Kingdom as found that women are more likely than men to experience brain activity relating to negative body perception [1].

Some researchers have speculated that women may have more negative feelings about their bodies compared to men due to perceived obesity as well as social pressures.

Factors that Contribute to Body Dissatisfaction

While both men and women can be susceptible to developing an eating disorder, irrespective of gender, research has shown that women are more likely than men to have body dissatisfaction.

Dr. Catherine Preston, lead author of this study that what published in the journal Cerebral Cortex, noted, “In today’s Western society, concerns regarding body size and negative feelings towards one’s body are all too common.

However, little is known about the neural mechanisms underlying negative feelings towards the body and how they relate to body perception and eating-disorder pathology.”

It has been known that eating disorders are correlated with biological influences, such as neurobiology and genetics. But what about poor body image? Dr. Preston and her team of researchers focused their study on identifying brain activity that might be associated with negative body perceptions.

Using Research to Understand Body Perception

Woman in a field of flowersIn this research project, 32 healthy individuals were studied, including 16 women and 16 men, none which had a prior history of an eating disorder.

Researchers were able to produce a virtual reality for each participant that showed a first-person video of both obese and slim bodies, ultimately creating the appearance that the body belonged to the participant.

Each participant was monitored for brain activity during the virtual reality experiment, using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

Interestingly, researchers found that during the experiment, a direct link was observed between parietal lob, the area of the brain connected with body perception, and the area of the brain associated with the processing of subjective emotions, such as anger or fear.

Women participating in this study demonstrated more prominent brain activity in response to “owning” a body that is obese compared to their male counterparts. These findings led researchers to conclude that higher body dissatisfaction in women is experienced for these neurobiological reasons.

Vulnerable to Eating Disorders – Focusing on the Findings

Research that reinforces the biological influences on eating disorder vulnerabilities is crucial for further treatment for those that struggle with these illnesses. While not everyone who experiences poor body image will develop an eating disorder, understanding this vulnerability can perhaps be helpful with future investigations and perhaps prevention and treatment approaches.

If you are a woman that has identified with poor body image, it is important to discuss these issues with someone you trust and can confide in. Poor body image, left unaddressed, can further develop into a more serious issue, like an eating disorder, such as anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder.

Crystal Headshot 2About the Author: Crystal is a Masters-level Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) with a specialty focus in eating disorders, maternal/child health and wellness, and intuitive eating. Combining clinical experience with a love of social media and writing, Crystal serves where her passion to help others find recovery and healing is integrated into each part of her work.

As a Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor, Crystal has dedicated her career to helping others establish a healthy relationship with food and body through her nutrition private practice.


[1]: Whiteman, H. (2016, October 16). “Why are women more vulnerable to eating disorders? Brain study sheds light.” Medical News Today. Retrieved from

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 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.

Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on October 28, 2016
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com