We compared the prevalence and age of onset of adult and childhood anxiety disorders relative to the primary diagnosis in 68 women with anorexia nervosa (AN), 116 women with bulimia nervosa (BN), 56 women with major depression with no eating disorder (MD) and 98 randomly selected controls (RC) in order to determine whether antecedent anxiety disorders are plausible risk factors for AN and BN. Comorbid anxiety disorders were common in all three clinical groups (AN, 60%; BN, 57%; MD, 48%). In 90% of AN women, 94% of BN women and 71 % of MD women, anxiety disorders preceded the current primary condition (P=0.01), although panic disorder tended to develop after the onset of AN, BN or MD. In multivariate logistic regressions, the odds ratios (ORs) for overanxious disorder (OR=13.4) and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OR=11.8) were significantly elevated for AN. The ORs for overanxious disorder and social phobia were significantly elevated for BN (OROAD,=4.9; ORSP=15.5) and MD (OROAD,=6.1; ORSP=6.4). These data suggest that certain anxiety disorders are non-specific risk factors for later affective and eating disorders, and others may represent more specific antecedent risk factors.