Risk Factors

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Environmental, social, biological, and psychological factors all contribute to eating-disorder risk. Early childhood environment and parenting may have a substantial impact. Many sufferers report dysfunctional family histories, with parents who were either emotionally absent or overly involved in their upbringing. As a result, these children may not tolerate stress well, they may have low self-esteem, and they may have difficulty in interpersonal relationships. Children who have been abused either physically, sexually, or psychologically are also highly vulnerable to eating disorders, particularly bulimia. Those raised by eating-disordered parents may be at heightened risk due to repeated exposure to maladaptive food-related behaviors.

Professions, activities, and dietary regimens that emphasize food or thinness may also encourage eating disorders. For example, athletes, ballet dancers, models, actors, diabetics, vegetarians, and food industry and nutrition professionals may have higher rates of disordered eating than the general population. In addition to environmental and social influences, biological and psychological factors may also increase risk for eating disorders in some people. Low levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter involved in appetite regulation and satiety, may be indicative of a predisposition to pathological eating behaviors. Similarly, as many as 50 to 75 percent of those who are diagnosed with eating disorders suffer from depression, a mental illness also associated with abnormalities in serotonin balance. Other psychiatric disturbances, such as bipolar depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, seasonal affective disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, attention-deficit-hyperactivity disorder, and addictive behaviors, are also common in people with eating disorders.

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