Purpose of review: Females experience eating disorders at substantially higher rates than males. Although sociocultural factors have traditionally been thought to underlie this sex disparity, accumulating evidence implicates differential exposure to gonadal hormones early in life. Gonadal hormones also impact within-sex variability in disordered eating, helping to explain why not all women develop an eating disorder, and some men do. We review recent findings regarding these gonadal hormone effects and their implications for the etiology of eating disorders.
Recent findings: Males are exposed to significantly higher testosterone levels than females perinatally, and this exposure appears to protect against later binge eating in males relative to females. Within-sex, higher estradiol levels among females and higher testosterone levels among males appear to be protective. Progesterone exhibits minimal direct phenotypic effects on disordered eating but appears to counteract the protective effects of estrogen in adult females. Importantly, gonadal hormone effects may be moderated by psychosocial factors.
Summary: Evidence suggests that gonadal hormones play a critical role in the etiology of disordered eating. Overall, higher testosterone and estrogen appear to be protective across development. Additional research is needed to identify mechanisms underlying these effects and further explore interactions between hormonal and psychosocial risk.
Conflict of interest statement
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