Risk factors for eating disorders: findings from a rapid review

Sarah Barakat, Siân A. McLean, Emma Bryant, Anvi Le, Peta Marks, National Eating Disorder Research Consortium, Randall Long, Marika Tiggemann, Simon Wilksch, Stephen Touyz, Sarah Maguire

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

46 Citations (Scopus)
124 Downloads (Pure)


Background: Risk factors represent a range of complex variables associated with the onset, development, and course of eating disorders. Understanding these risk factors is vital for the refinement of aetiological models, which may inform the development of targeted, evidence-based prevention, early intervention, and treatment programs. This Rapid Review aimed to identify and summarise research studies conducted within the last 12 years, focusing on risk factors associated with eating disorders. 

Methods: The current review forms part of a series of Rapid Reviews to be published in a special issue in the Journal of Eating Disorders, funded by the Australian Government to inform the development of the National Eating Disorder Research and Translation Strategy 2021–2031. Three databases were searched for studies published between 2009 and 2021, published in English, and comprising high-level evidence studies (meta-analyses, systematic reviews, moderately sized randomised controlled studies, moderately sized controlled-cohort studies, or population studies). Data pertaining to risk factors for eating disorders were synthesised and outlined in the current paper. 

Results: A total of 284 studies were included. The findings were divided into nine main categories: (1) genetics, (2) gastrointestinal microbiota and autoimmune reactions, (3) childhood and early adolescent exposures, (4) personality traits and comorbid mental health conditions, (5) gender, (6) socio-economic status, (7) ethnic minority, (8) body image and social influence, and (9) elite sports. A substantial amount of research exists supporting the role of inherited genetic risk in the development of eating disorders, with biological risk factors, such as the role of gut microbiota in dysregulation of appetite, an area of emerging evidence. Abuse, trauma and childhood obesity are strongly linked to eating disorders, however less conclusive evidence exists regarding developmental factors such as role of in-utero exposure to hormones. Comorbidities between eating disorders and mental health disorders, including personality and mood disorders, have been found to increase the severity of eating disorder symptomatology. Higher education attainment, body image-related factors, and use of appearance-focused social media are also associated with increased risk of eating disorder symptoms. 

Conclusion: Eating disorders are associated with multiple risk factors. An extensive amount of research has been conducted in the field; however, further studies are required to assess the causal nature of the risk factors identified in the current review. This will assist in understanding the sequelae of eating disorder development and in turn allow for enhancement of existing interventions and ultimately improved outcomes for individuals.

Original languageEnglish
Article number8
Number of pages31
JournalJournal of Eating Disorders
Issue number1
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 17 Jan 2023


  • Aetiology, review
  • DSM-5
  • Eating disorders
  • Risk factors


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