Although reduced body image and low self-esteem are potential risk factors for eating disorders, they’re not the only factors at play.

Body dissatisfaction can increase your risk of disordered eating or developing an eating disorder. However, body image isn’t the sole cause of eating disorders — instead, it’s usually one of several contributing factors.

Someone with a healthy body image can develop an eating disorder.

Body image refers to your thoughts, feelings, and perceptions about your body — how it looks, works, feels, and operates.

Several factors influence your body image, including:

  • individual factors (anxiety, self-perception, life satisfaction)
  • relational factors (your relationship with friends, family, and others)
  • environmental factors (media representation, cultural institutions, academic or professional culture)

Reduced body image can occur from issues like:

  • unrealistic beauty standards
  • body shaming from loved ones and in the media
  • family attitudes toward weight and dieting
  • treatment in academic or professional settings

The factors contributing to body image can be complex and differ from person to person. If you’re having difficulty with your body image, counseling may be a helpful place to work through it.

Some eating disorders, like anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, can involve an intense focus on weight and appearance.

One study from 2022, for example, found that low body image is more common in people with anorexia nervosa than in the larger population.

A 2023 study found that women with low body image were more likely to develop disordered eating patterns.

However, it’s a common misconception that all eating disorders are about trying to control weight and appearance.

Healthcare professionals diagnose many disorders, such as avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID) and pica, based on your behavior, not your body image.

The following can also increase your risk of developing an eating disorder:

  • Age: While people of any age can develop an eating disorder, they’re most common during adolescence and young adulthood. ARFID commonly occurs in toddlers and young children.
  • Family history: A family history of eating disorders may make you more likely to develop one.
  • Excessive dieting: Severe dieting can lead to disordered eating habits and eating disorders.
  • Psychological health: Many people with eating disorders have a coexisting mental health condition, like an anxiety disorder or obsessive-compulsive disorder.
  • Trauma: Traumatic events and severe stress may lead to an eating disorder.

Many symptoms of eating disorders and disordered eating exist. These can be behavioral, emotional, and physical.

Note that the symptoms differ from one condition to another (and from one person to another) as everybody experiences eating disorders differently.

Behavioral symptoms:

  • cooking meals for others without eating
  • denying feeling hungry
  • dressing in layers to hide weight or stay warm
  • exercising excessively
  • excusing yourself to avoid mealtime
  • expressing a need to “burn off” calories
  • researching nutrition and weight loss obsessively
  • refusing to eat certain foods
  • limiting and restricting severely the amount and types of food consumed
  • using the bathroom frequently after a meal

Emotional symptoms:

  • sensations of guilt and shame around eating habits
  • intense fear of weight gain or being “fat”
  • mental preoccupation with weight, food, calories, fat grams, or dieting
  • obsession with losing or gaining weight quickly
  • obsession with physical appearance and perception of your body by others

Physical symptoms:

  • atypically low or high body weight
  • atypical lab test results (anemia, low thyroid levels, low hormone levels, low potassium, low blood cell counts, slow heart rate)
  • calluses across the tops of your finger joints (a symptom of inducing vomiting)
  • difficulty concentrating
  • dizziness
  • dry skin, nails, and hair
  • spells of fainting
  • often feeling cold
  • frequent illness
  • lethargy and fatigue
  • menstrual periods missing
  • muscle weakness
  • sleep irregularities
  • stomach cramps and other gastrointestinal symptoms
  • unexpected weight loss or gain

Although these symptoms may help you figure out whether you (or a loved one) need help, they’re not an exhaustive list, nor will everybody with an eating disorder experience all of the above symptoms.

Eating disorders require professional treatment. Without treatment, they can cause long-term physical and emotional health effects.

Wondering if you need help can be a reason enough to get support. So, if your body image or eating habits have made you curious about getting professional help, it’s a good idea to make an appointment.

It’s also a good idea to consult with a professional if you:

  • constantly worry about your appearance or weight
  • often feel useless, depressed, or worthless
  • intentionally harm or mistreat your body
  • take extreme measures to avoid seeing or showing your body
  • spend a lot of time thinking about, hiding, or rechecking your body and appearance to the point of it interfering with your daily activities

Getting professional help can be the first step in helping yourself feel and function better.

You can book an appointment with an eating disorder specialist in your area using our Healthline FindCare tool.

Sian Ferguson is a freelance health and cannabis writer based in Cape Town, South Africa. She’s passionate about empowering readers to take care of their mental and physical health through science-based, empathetically delivered information.