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Who Becomes Anorexic - Risk Factors

Anorexia may seem very common because of media attention and television specials, but in truth, its prevalence is hard to pin down, partly because anorexia is sometimes defined in different ways by different researchers. Some estimates say only about 1 percent of American girls and women have anorexia. Others suggest that up to 10 percent of adolescent girls have anorexia. Anorexia is more common in girls and women. But recent research suggests that an increasing number of boys and men have been developing eating disorders in the last decade, perhaps because of growing social pressure. And while anorexia is more common among teens, people of any age can develop this eating disorder.

Although the precise cause of anorexia is unknown, certain factors can increase the risk of developing anorexia, including:

  • Dieting. People who lose weight by dieting are often reinforced by positive comments from others and by their changing appearance. They may end up dieting excessively.
  • Unintentional weight loss. People who don't intentionally diet but lose weight after an illness or accident may be complimented on their new-found thinness. Reinforced, they may wind up dieting to an extreme.
  • Weight gain. Someone who gains weight may be dismayed with their new shape and may get criticized or ridiculed. In response, they may wind up dieting excessively.
  • Puberty. Some adolescents have trouble coping with the changes their bodies go through during puberty. They also may face increased peer pressure and may be more sensitive to criticism or even casual comments about weight or body shape.
    All of these can set the stage for anorexia.
  • Transitions. Whether it's a new school, home or job, a relationship breakup, or the death or illness of a loved one, change can bring emotional distress. One way to cope, especially in situations that may be out of someone's control, is to latch on to something that they can control, such as their eating.
  • Sports, work and artistic activities. Athletes, actors and television personalities, dancers, and models are at higher risk of anorexia. For some, such as ballerinas, ultra-thinness may even be a professional requirement. Sports associated with anorexia include running, wrestling, figure skating and gymnastics. Professional men and women may believe they'll improve their upward mobility by losing weight, and then take it to an extreme. Coaches and parents may inadvertently raise the risk by suggesting that young athletes lose weight.
  • Media and society. The media, such as television and fashion magazines, frequently feature a parade of skinny models and actors. But whether the media merely reflect social values or actually drive them isn't clear-cut. In any case, these images may seem to equate thinness with success and popularity.

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