Evidence-Based Comprehensive Psychological, Nutritional and Medical Care

What are the Main Causes of Eating Disorders

Scientists have found that perfectionism, social anxiety, shame proneness and competitiveness may increase the risk of eating disorders. Many eating disorders begin at the onset of puberty. The risk factors and causes of eating disorders can range from outside cultural and family influences to inappropriate dieting or unbalanced exercise.  Traumatic experiences may also be a risk factor. Having a family member with an eating disorder may put a person at increased risk.  Generally, it is not only one of these factors alone that causes an eating disorder, but instead, a combination of several factors. Those suffering from eating disorders, should receive eating disorder treatment in order to overcome the illness and learn to adapt to their temperament and handle common everyday stressors and emotions.

Biological Causes of Eating Disorders

There is strong evidence that points to biological factors, including genetics and brain chemistry, as main causes of eating disorders. Additionally, eating disorders, especially anorexia and bulimia, tend to run in families. Therefore, individuals who have a biological relative that suffered from an eating disorder are 10 times more likely to develop an eating disorder themselves.

Another biological cause of eating disorders may relate to differences in reward pathways in the brain. Individuals suffering from eating disorders also tend to have higher levels of cortisol, which is a hormone that helps control and regulate stress, and vasopressin, a chemical that is also high in patients suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder. Abnormalities in the hypothamitic-pituitary-adrenal axis, which controls the production and release of many of these chemicals, may be one of the causes of eating disorders.

Psychological Causes of Eating Disorders

There are some psychological factors, which appear to be common in individuals with eating disorders. Such specific psychological causes include:

  • Harm Avoidant Temperament/Anxiety Disorders
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Traits
  • Post Traumatic Syndrome
  • Cognitive Inflexibility (especially Anorexia Nervosa)
  • Impulsivity and novelty seeking is associated with Bulimia Nervosa

Cultural Causes of Eating Disorders

Cultural and societal influences are also possible causes of eating disorders. These influences can come from the media promoting unrealistic expectations for thinness from models and actors as well as from family over-focus on diet and appearance, teasing and body-based shaming.

Additional Risk Factors and Causes of Eating Disorders

Additional risk factors and causes of eating disorders are also related to physical activities, age and gender, and body shape or size. Like other causes of eating disorders, these risk factors do not always result in an eating disorder, but do increase the risk.

  • Female gender: While eating disorders can affect both men and women, females including young teenage girls and adult women are more likely to develop an eating disorder.
  • Age: Eating disorders can be seen in individuals of any age, but are most common in adolescents and young adults.
  • Family influences: Families that provide less security, overly value success or physical appearance, are overly critical, or often tease or comment on physical appearance may be linked as one of the many causes of eating disorders.
  • Emotional disorders: Many emotional disorders and mental health disorders can increase the risks for developing eating disorders. These disorders commonly linked to eating disorders include low self-esteem, obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety disorders, and depression.
  • Dieting: Occasionally what may begin as healthy dieting can be a cause of eating disorders, because as people lose weight and begin to receive comments about their changing appearance they may be driven to the more extreme and unhealthy weight loss methods seen in eating disorders.
  • Sports and athleticism: Athletes may develop strict diets that can develop into eating disorders as the individual attempts to improve their abilities.  Sport cultures that over emphasize weight control may increase risk.
  • Transitions: Sudden and stressful transitions including a relationship breakup, starting a new job, or moving, can bring emotional distress, which causes eating disorders to develop.
  • Overweight body size: The use of extreme eating disorder behaviors, such as abuse of diet pills, laxatives, diuretics, and vomiting, are more commonly seen in overweight teenagers and other individuals, suggesting that being overweight is linked as a cause of eating disorders.
Marks of Quality Care
  • Binge Eating Disorder Association (BEDA)
  • Eating Disorder Coalition of Iowa
  • International Association Of Eating Disorders Professionals (IAEDP)
  • National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD)
  • National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA)
  • RenewED, Eating Disorders Support
  • Washington University in St. Louis

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