What causes an eating disorder?

The cause of eating disorders is not known at this time. However, studies have suggested a number of things that could possibly add to your risk for an eating disorder. The most obvious factor in Western culture is the fact that the media portrays successful people as extremely thin. Children and adolescents are exposed to this constantly and learn to associate their self-worth with their weight. Another factor in the development of an eating disorder is other mental issues, such as depression, anxiety, or low self-esteem. Lastly, genetics or the levels of certain chemicals in your brain (serotonin) may also play a role in causing eating disorders.

Eating disorders have various causes. Here are a few:

  1. According to recent research genetics play a major role. If you know of any family members or grandparents who dealt with depression, alcoholism, or was obsessive with their eating style, you may be affected genetically.
  2. Altered brain chemistry is also proving to be directly associated with eating disorders. For example, if you had a parent who was an alcoholic, lost a loved one, or was sexually abused as a child, then your brain chemistry has been altered. You become extra sensitive to life challenges, and may feel an urge to turn to your eating disorder to mask any undesired emotions. A normal person would not feel anxiety on a daily basis because their brain can balance out the emotions properly.
  3. Pressure from our society is also a big problem. If you are genetically predisposed, or have altered brain chemistry, then any outside pressure from our society is the “cherry on top.” Meaning, genetics and imbalanced development in the brain loads a gun with ammunition, and pressure from society to look perfect pulls the trigger on a full blown eating disorder.

Society sets us up to believe that perfection is obtainable, and is the only way to be happy. Our society screams you must be thin, smart, funny, and more to really be someone in life. That’s when perfectionism kicks in only adding to the eating disorder drama.

  1. Being bullied also adds coal to the fire. When I was in Elementary School I was told I needed to call 1-800-94-Jenny (a weight loss company). It was that moment that I realized that I was chubby. Comments made by peers or even family members about the body can be etched in one’s subconscious mind.

Overall, there is some staggering new research on the causes of Eating Disorders. It is important to examine your own past. Then, you can learn how to face the emotions attached to your personal issues and overcome an eating disorder.

Cesar Gamez

There are multiple contributing factors that exist in the development of an eating disorder. Gaining awareness of how these factors facilitated the development of an eating disorder is likely to also shed light on how these behaviors are maintained as well.

Genetics seem to play a big role. It is important for a person struggling with an eating disorder to become informed on his/her family psychiatric history.

Culture plays a role in how we view food and view our bodies. Because in some cultures, food may be used as a sign of hospitality or comfort; it may be difficult for a person growing up in certain cultural traditions to develop proper hunger cue awareness or develop portion control. 

Traumatic events such as near death experiences, sexual molestation or rape may cause eating disorders behaviors to surface as a way to respond to that trauma. Trauma survivors often talk about their purging behaviors as "cleansing," while others describe the control they experience in restricting by saying, "I control what goes in my body and stays in my body."

Family dynamics seem to also play a role in how a person experiences his/her world (i.e. too controlling or too chaotic). As a result, that which may feel uncontrollable on the outside becomes something to control on the inside. 

Personality factors that lead to perfectionistic tendencies or impulsivity can play a role in the rigidity or chaos a person experiences with food.

Additional mental health concerns such as OCD, depression, anxiety and substance abuse can play a role in the development of an eating disorder. Food may be used to self-soothe. The obsessionality a person experiences due to high levels of anxiety may lead a person to begin obsessing about body image and calorie consumption.

No one is really sure what causes eating disorders, although there are many theories about why people develop them. It is more common to develop an eating disorder between 13 and 17 years old and this is a time of significant emotional and physical change, academic demand, and social or peer pressure. With the greater independence during the teen years, teens might feel that they are not in control of their personal freedom and, sometimes, of their bodies. This, along with the cultural emphasis on a certain body type, may contribute to the development of an eating disorder.
There is no single cause of eating disorders. Biological, social and psychological factors all play a role. Evidence suggesting a genetic predisposition reveals that anorexia may be more common between sisters and in identical twins. Therefore, a woman with a mother or sister who has anorexia is 12 times more likely than the general public to develop that disorder and four times more likely to develop bulimia. Furthermore, among identical twins, whose genetic makeup is 100% the same, there is a 59% chance that if one twin has anorexia, then the other twin will also develop an eating disorder. For fraternal twins sharing only 50% of their siblings’ genes, there is an 11% chance that the other twin will have an eating disorder.

In some women, an event or series of events triggers the eating disorder and allows it to take root and thrive. Triggers can be as subtle as a degrading comment or as traumatic as rape or incest. Times of transition, such as puberty, divorce, marriage or starting college, can also provoke disordered eating behaviors. Parents who are preoccupied with eating and overly concerned about or critical of a daughter's weight, and coaches who relentlessly insist on weigh-ins or a certain body image from their athletes (especially in weight-conscious sports such as ballet, cheerleading, diving, wrestling and gymnastics) may also unintentionally encourage an eating disorder. Additionally, the pressure of living in a culture where self-worth is equated with unattainable standards of slimness and beauty can also perpetuate body image and/or eating issues.

Furthermore, the discrepancy between our society's concept of the ideal body size for women and the size of the average American woman has never been greater -- leading many women to unrealistic goals where weight is concerned.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.