Causes & Effects of Eating Disorders

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

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.

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.

Eating Disorder Complications: Bulimia Nervosa

Bulimia nervosa is a serious eating disorder during which individuals suffer from cyclical occurrences of bingeing and purging. Because of the extreme and dangerous purging activities characteristic of this eating disorder, complications can include:

  • Heart problems including an irregular heartbeat and heart failure
  • Severe tooth decay and cavities as well as sores in the gums and mouth
  • Water retention, swelling, and abdominal bloating
  • Low potassium levels
  • Swallowing problems and sever esophagus damage
  • Absence of period or irregular menstruation in females
  • Digestive problems and even a lasting dependence on laxatives for bowel movements
  • Drug and alcohol abuse
  • Death

Eating Disorder Complications: Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder that has a high risk for causing serious medical complications and health problems in individuals. This eating disorder is driven by an overwhelming desire to be thin. Therefore, it causes individuals to severely limit food intake while also attempting other extreme weight loss and weight control behaviors including compulsive exercising. Most of the eating disorder complications for individuals suffering from anorexia occur as a result of extremely low body weight, low energy availability and/or losing a significant amount of weight in a relatively short period of time. Severe health problems, including death, can also result from mineral imbalances. Eating disorder complications commonly found in individuals suffering from anorexia include:

  • Anemia
  • Stunted Growth
  • Hormonal changes including reproductive, thyroid, stress, and growth hormones
  • Heart problems including mitral valve prolapse, abnormal heart rhythms, and heart failure
  • Slow pulse
  • Low blood pressure
  • Bone density loss and life-long osteoporosis
  • Absence of period and fertility problems in females and decreased testosterone in males
  • Gastrointestinal problems including constipation, bloating, or nausea
  • Electrolyte imbalances including low blood potassium, sodium, and chloride
  • Kidney problems and even kidney failure
  • Neurological problems

Preventing Eating Disorder Complications with Early Treatment

The best way to prevent the occurrence of any of these eating disorder complications is to begin treatment as soon as possible. The more severe or long lasting an eating disorder is, the more likely an individual is to experience serious and even life-threatening complications and to stay stuck in their eating disorder. If you or a loved one is suffering from an eating disorder, it is important to contact an eating disorder treatment center, like McCallum Place. Beginning a treatment program designed especially for your individuals needs will increase the chances for a successful recovery and reduce the risk of encountering dangerous eating disorder complications.

For More Information

Eating disorders can lead to a variety of potentially life-threatening and dangerous medical complications for individuals. Because the chances that an individual will suffer from these eating disorder complications increases as an eating disorder is allowed to progress, the sooner that individuals begin eating disorder treatment, the better.

Eating disorder complications can vary between individuals. Based on the particular disorder from which a person suffers, possible eating disorder complications and co-occuring psychiatric conditions can include depression, anxiety bone loss, digestive problems, heart disease, and death. If you, a friend, a family member, or loved one is suffering from an eating disorder, learn more about McCallum Place Eating Disorder Centers programs in St. Louis and Kansas City that provide the individualized treatment that you or your loved one requires.

As painful as it is to be here and do what they’re asking, I don’t think I’d be able to do it without the McCallum Place support. You don’t have to know how to fix it, just be willing to listen and try their suggestions.

– A Former Resident
Marks of Quality Care
  • 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