The Causes of An Eating Disorder: A Look Inside

Eating Disorder Causes

Fact: Eating disorders are extremely common; about 20 million women and 10 million men suffer from them at some point in their lives.

Myth: Eating disorders are only about food. 

Eating disorder types include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder. While these are the most common eating disorders names, there are also other, lesser-known types such as OSFED (other specified feeding or eating disorders). Whenever an eating disorder has been established, the consequences of restricting, binging, or purging contribute to its perpetuation through alterations in the body’s control of sensations of hunger and fullness, changes in the motility of the gastrointestinal tract, and altered learning, habits, and decision-making around food.

Scientists and researchers are still studying these emotionally and physically damaging conditions. There is no single cause of eating disorders; however, body weight and body shape seem central to all eating disorders. In other words, an eating disorder can be caused by many factors simultaneously.

When feeling out of control in other areas of their lives, some people with eating disorders take extreme measures to control their food intake. An obsession with food becomes a way to cope with painful emotions or feelings. Thus, eating disorders have more to do with managing emotions than food, but the reasons why these factors have come together in any individual will be personal. 

Genetics & Biological Factors

Even though more and more people realize eating disorders are brain diseases, there is still a widespread misconception that these individuals are vain, attention-seeking, or lacking willpower. However, it’s not always a conscious choice. A person’s risk of developing an eating disorder is significantly influenced by genetic vulnerability, as is the case with many other psychiatric conditions. An eating disorder is more likely to develop in individuals with a first-degree relative who has a history of the disorder. The study adds to the growing body of research showing that eating disorders are powerful biological illnesses.

People often wonder how an illness like this can be inherited when we use terms like “genetic,” especially if no close family members are affected. Moreover, it may make a parent wonder if they passed on any hidden genetic factors to their child, making them feel responsible for the illness. The presence of a family history of eating disorders can increase a person’s chances of developing an eating disorder, but it does not guarantee it.

An eating disorder may develop when certain genes are present and specific proteins are produced.  

  • However, this alone does not provide a comprehensive picture of the complex syndrome. 
  • Because of this, not everyone with these genes has an eating disorder. 
  • Consequently, not every eating disorder is the same. 

Personality traits are linked to specific genes. There are many enduring, heritable, and pervasive personality factors. 

  • Many personality traits can be related to obsessive thinking, perfectionism, and emotional instability. 
  • There are also traits such as rigidity, impulsivity, hypersensitivity, and avoiding harm.
  • An individual with these traits is more likely to develop an eating disorder.

Biological processes in eating disorders also have an impact.

  • A person’s eating disorder is caused by a combination of neural pathways, biochemical processes, and brain structures.
  • It is possible for eating disorders to be caused by abnormalities in the structure of the brain, changes in its chemicals, and changes in its activity.

Fad dieting, excessive exercise, or medical illness have long been considered possible eating disorder triggers. Pre-existing genetic drivers for eating disorders can be triggered by behavioral changes such as food binges or restricting food intake. As a result of these findings, we suggest that eating disorders are biologically driven illnesses that alter mood and behavior, similar to how hypothyroidism can lead to depression.

Despite studies and information about genetics and eating disorders, researchers are still investigating possible biochemical or biological causes. For example, the brain chemicals that regulate hunger, appetite, and digestion may be imbalanced in some eating disorder sufferers. There is still much work to be done to determine the implications of these imbalances.

Environmental Factors

A variety of cultural, media and societal influences can also have an impact on eating disorders. Exposure can significantly impact a person’s perception of themselves. Eating disorders can also be caused by environmental factors such as:

  • Being criticized or teased
  • Being bullied
  • Being critiqued about weight by family or peers
  • Receiving messages from others and social comparisons can lead to faulty body image and self-perceptions

Research on family triggers of eating disorders is predominantly cross-sectional, retrospective, and unsubstantiated. Nevertheless, parents’ behaviors may influence their children’s eating habits. In addition, an eating disorder-linked behavior may be modeled within a family (for example, watching a family member dieting). 

For example:

  • When mothers diet excessively or worry excessively about their weight, their children may develop an abnormal relationship with food.
  • An individual who is teased about their weight or shape by their parents, sibling, or peers.
  • High expectations of a child’s performance at school may also contribute to eating disorders.

External factors can significantly influence whether a person idealizes thinness and engages in social comparisons. Because society and culture influence eating behavior and our conception of the ideal body shape, these two factors (idealization and social comparison) may contribute to poor body image and disordered eating.

However, it is essential to note that such environmental factors cannot entirely account for eating disorders. The likelihood of everyone developing an eating disorder would be 100% if they did, but we know that’s not the case.

Psychological Factors 

Eating disorders are a stress response. Usually, they’re triggered by stressful events, such as a parent’s divorce or a change of schools, which triggers them into life.

When someone feels vulnerable, they might turn to diet as a way to feel better or make themselves more popular. There is often a hidden need for control, not just over feelings but also other people’s perceptions. Lack of self-confidence and poor strategies for managing emotions can also make it difficult for people to meet their needs in relationships.

Eating disorders are psychosomatic and psychiatric disorders that interact in the body and mind. Psychosomatic issues in EDs are apparent in alterations of the body and its functioning, personality traits, difficulty recognizing and managing emotions, and anger management.

Eating disorders are often accompanied by psychological and emotional problems, such as:

  • Low self-esteem: People with low self-esteem tend to have a poor view of their worth that is pervasive and unconditional. In addition, they believe they lack value as individuals and describe themselves as “worthless,” “useless,” “stupid,” “unlovable,” and “a failure.” Moreover, they compare themselves negatively to others (“She/he/everyone is so much better/thinner/more intelligent than I”).
  • Perfectionistic tendencies and rigid standards. Several studies have identified perfectionism as one of this population’s most relevant psychological risk factors. Anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa sufferers have higher levels of perfectionism than people without eating disorders. Eating disorders and perfectionism seem related, but the exact nature of the relationship is unclear. There is no evidence that one causes the other or comes first. 
  • Depression, anxiety, anger, emptiness, or loneliness. An eating disorder is often co-occurring with a major depression diagnosis. About 50% to 75% of those who struggle with eating disorders also suffer from depression. It is crucial to understand and consider the close relationship between these two disorders in identifying, diagnosing, and treating eating disorders.
  • Feelings of lack of control. These behaviors are rooted in a more primal, intrinsic urge to establish security through an illusion of control. We tend to equate comfort or protection with the freedom to regulate ourselves. Thus, the impulse to micromanage is heightened when life becomes chaotic and erratic. You may resort to dominating your body with an eating disorder to compensate for this loss of control. 

In reality, few aspects of this human experience are within your control. As a result of these factors, eating disorders can materialize and strengthen in that perfect storm situation.

Get Help Today

No matter what factors may have contributed to someone’s eating disorder, it’s important to know that recovery is possible and most often requires professional help.

Eating disorders are stigmatized when the underlying causes are not understood, which makes getting treatment more difficult. Medical conditions of any kind deserve support and the best treatment. Those suffering from eating disorders should not have to feel guilty about their illness, and they should be able to seek treatment that is safe and effective.

It is still possible to treat eating disorders effectively even though we don’t understand all their causes. Eating disorder symptoms can be reduced by evidence-based therapies that lead to recovery. If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, there’s nothing to be ashamed of. Most of the time, it’s caused by reasons beyond our understanding, and getting help can connect you to the truth and recovery. Call today at 855-808-4213 for a free, confidential consultation, where you can learn more about eating disorder treatment at Eating Disorder Solutions.