Can You Predict That a Teen Will Develop an Eating Disorder?

Can You Predict That a Teen Will Develop an Eating Disorder?  by Timberline Knolls Staff

Are there factors that may predict a young person is more likely to develop an eating disorder later in life? Researchers think so and they say this information could offer a chance to help teens at the earliest signs of trouble.

Factors That May Predict Eating Disorders in Adolescents

Researchers conducted a longitudinal study of 1,623 adolescents starting when the teens were 14 years old. They then followed up with the participants when they were between the ages of 16-19. Throughout the course of the study, the researchers identified several factors that may indicate a young person is at a higher risk for developing an eating disorder [1]:

  • High levels of neuroticism, behavioral problems, and self-harm were associated with future binge-eating.
  • Being less agreeable, self-harm, behavioral problems, alcohol misuse, and drug abuse were associated with future purging.
  • A high body mass index was associated with future dieting.

The researchers’ findings also suggested that teens who have attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or a personality disorder were more likely to struggle with the compulsion to restrict their food intake, binge-eat, or purge their food.

“Given the interwoven nature of both childhood psychiatric disorders, namely [ADHD] and adolescent affective disorders with eating disorder symptoms, greater clinical awareness and prompter recognition of psychiatric comorbidities by primary care teams are essential,” the study authors told Medscape Medical News.

The teenage years are undoubtedly a complex time, but these behaviors do not always indicate a young person is troubled by urges they can’t control. It’s critical for their loved ones and healthcare providers to talk to them about how they’re feeling about their bodies and their self-image.

Improving Eating Disorder Prevention Among Teens

The predictors the researchers identified can go a long way in getting teens help sooner. But it’s even more critical to apply these equitably so that every young person has a chance to succeed.

Sadly, healthcare providers often underdiagnose eating disorders in racial minority teens, causing a disparity among those who receive treatment and, ultimately, better outcomes. Researchers evaluated data from interviews with more than 10,000 U.S. adolescents ages 13-18. They found that [2]:

  • Hispanic teens reported the highest rates of bulimia nervosa compared to other racial minority groups
  • Teens of colors reported the highest rates of binge-eating disorder compared to white teens
  • White teens reported the highest rates of anorexia nervosa

While it’s clear that eating disorders affect young people regardless of their race, the researchers found that white teens were nearly twice as likely to be diagnosed with an eating disorder as teens of color [2].

“There is a stereotype that [eating disorders] affect only skinny, white, affluent girls, leaving out numerous people who do not fit that stereotype and contributing to disparities in treatment and diagnosis,” Kendrin Sonneville, Sc.D., R.D., the study’s lead author, told Medscape Medical News.

Setting aside myths and stereotypes about eating disorders allows us to apply these predictors more equitably — and that is a major step toward preventing more teens from struggling with these devastating conditions.


[1] Brooks, M. (2020, December). Can eating disorders be predicted? Medscape.

[2] Yasgur, B., & Vega, C. (2018). Eating disorders: Are we missing men and minorities? Medscape.