Eating disorders can develop at any stage in an individual’s life. The exact causes of these conditions are not yet established. They may be caused by a complicated combination of factors including genetic, biochemical, psychological, cultural, and environmental.
Influence Of Eating Disorders
Eating disorders are mental disorders characterized by abnormal eating patterns along with compensatory behaviors such as purging or using laxatives. The most common eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder. The exact cause of developing these disorders is still unknown. A 2009 study 1 suggests that it may be a combination of biological, environmental, physical, and psychological factors. However, experts also believe that it may also arise from a preoccupation with body weight and shape.
Risk Factors Associated With Eating Disorders
A 2015 study 2 suggests that women are more likely to develop these disorders than men. Some of the risk factors of these conditions include:
- Excess dieting
- Family history
- Impulsive behavior
- Obsessive compulsive disorder
- Traumatic incidents
- Sexual abuse
- Life transitions such as divorce or unemployment
- Body image or appearance
Causes Of Eating Disorders
There may be several factors responsible for developing these disorders. They include:
1. Genetic Factors
Genetics may be responsible for developing this disorder. Research 3 was conducted to understand the exact genetic profile that contributes to developing eating disorders. The researchers indicated that there is not a single gene or genes that are responsible for these disorders. Some people tend to inherit traits, such as anxiety, depression, or moodiness that increase the risk of developing these disorders. Family studies of anorexia 4 and bulimia 5 have consistently found a higher lifetime prevalence of eating disorders among relatives.
An individual having a family history of eating disorders may increase the risk of developing this condition. Twin adoption studies 6 suggest that the role of genetics confirmed that 40% to 60% of the risk for anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder arises from genetic influence. A remarkable influence of developing this condition can depend on the behaviors of the family member. However, it is important to understand that despite having a family history of this condition, it doesn’t necessarily indicate that they will be affected at some point in their life.
Sometimes teenagers may be more susceptible to developing these disorders due to hormonal changes during puberty. A 2000 study 7 indicated that late adolescence or early adulthood is the peak period for eating disorder onset. Societal and peer pressures around body image and appearance may also trigger abnormal eating behaviors. Some teenage changes are normal. However, it may be a matter of concern if the teenager is constantly obsessing over their body weight, appearance, or diets. One of the major signs of a teenager suffering from an eating disorder is abnormal weight gain or loss and making negative comments about their weight or appearance.
Read More About Aging Here
3. Environmental factors
Several environmental factors may significantly influence the development of eating disorders. Some of these environmental factors include peer pressure, media influence, or diet culture. Teenagers or even adults are constantly being exposed to media that puts emphasis on being thinner as the ideal weight. This can have a significant impact on their minds. They start believing that this is the ideal weight they should attain in order to be beautiful. A 2009 study 8 found that anorexia and bulimia are more common among females than males.
Exposure to media, peer and parental negative messages also contribute to developing these conditions. Social comparison and idealizing thinness are the two key factors that may lead to poor body image and abnormal eating patterns. People develop unrealistic expectations for their body image from the media and tend to put an overemphasis on the importance of being thin. Adopting certain practices can be beneficial for the individual with eating disorders. These can include positive parental comments about body positivity and appearance, having family meals together, developing emotion regulation skills, and practicing mindfulness.
4. Personality Traits
People with certain personality and behavioral traits are often found to engage in abnormal eating behaviors. These traits include low self-esteem, approval-seeking behavior, dependency, or being a perfectionist. There may also be self-destructive behaviors that may also contribute to these conditions. Several studies 9 have found that personality traits such as novelty seeking, impulsivity, harm avoidance, perfectionism, and other traits are common in patients with eating disorders. Consequently, a 2007 study 10 found that subjects demonstrated changes in behavior patterns, such as harm avoidance, persistence, self-directedness, and self-transcendence after in-patient cognitive behavioral therapy for eating disorders.
Read More About Big 5 Personality Traits Here
5. Psychological Factors
A 1995 study 11 pointed out that individuals tend to assess their bodies by comparing them with the ideal body weight. This results in body dissatisfaction in teenagers as well as in adults. Due to this, individuals may adhere to strict rules around eating and tend to be overly critical when their expectations are not met. Certain psychological conditions may also trigger eating disorders, such as –
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Panic disorder
- Anxiety, phobias
People with these conditions often use food and the restriction around food to compensate for their feelings and emotions that seem overwhelming. For some people, dieting, bingeing, and purging becomes a way to cope with pain and overwhelming emotions. This allows them to feel that they are in control of life.
Treatment And Recovery
Experts 12 believe that these conditions arise from a complex interaction of biological, psychological, and environmental factors. Seeking treatment is crucial for people suffering from these conditions. There are no medications that can entirely treat eating disorders. Medications may be prescribed to attend to the comorbid conditions associated with these disorders. The main form of treatment is psychotherapy along with medications. Recovery from these disorders is a challenging process. However, it is possible to recover from this condition by paying attention to the underlying emotional causes that are triggering the urgency to eat copious amounts of food or to avoid eating altogether.
Read More About Treatment of Eating Disorders Here
- Mazzeo, S. E., & Bulik, C. M. (2009). Environmental and genetic risk factors for eating disorders: what the clinician needs to know. Child and adolescent psychiatric clinics of North America, 18(1), 67–82. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chc.2008.07.003
- Sharan, P., & Sundar, A. S. (2015). Eating disorders in women. Indian journal of psychiatry, 57(Suppl 2), S286–S295. https://doi.org/10.4103/0019-5545.161493
- Slof-Op ‘t Landt MC, van Furth EF, Meulenbelt I, Slagboom PE, Bartels M, Boomsma DI, Bulik CM. Eating disorders: from twin studies to candidate genes and beyond. Twin Res Hum Genet. 2005 Oct;8(5):467-82. doi: 10.1375/183242705774310114. PMID: 16212836.
- Strober M, Freeman R, Lampert C, Diamond J, Kaye W. Controlled family study of anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa: evidence of shared liability and transmission of partial syndromes. Am J Psychiatry. 2000 Mar;157(3):393-401. doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.157.3.393. PMID: 10698815.
- Hudson JI, Pope HG Jr, Jonas JM, Yurgelun-Todd D, Frankenburg FR. A controlled family history study of bulimia. Psychol Med. 1987 Nov;17(4):883-90. doi: 10.1017/s0033291700000684. PMID: 3432462.
- Klump KL, Burt SA, McGue M, Iacono WG. Changes in genetic and environmental influences on disordered eating across adolescence: a longitudinal twin study. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2007 Dec;64(12):1409-15. doi: 10.1001/archpsyc.64.12.1409. PMID: 18056549.
- Lewinsohn PM, Striegel-Moore RH, Seeley JR. Epidemiology and natural course of eating disorders in young women from adolescence to young adulthood. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2000 Oct;39(10):1284-92. doi: 10.1097/00004583-200010000-00016. PMID: 11026183.
- Striegel-Moore, R. H., Rosselli, F., Perrin, N., DeBar, L., Wilson, G. T., May, A., & Kraemer, H. C. (2009). Gender difference in the prevalence of eating disorder symptoms. The International journal of eating disorders, 42(5), 471–474. https://doi.org/10.1002/eat.20625
- Vitousek K, Manke F. Personality variables and disorders in anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. J Abnorm Psychol. 1994 Feb;103(1):137-47. doi: 10.1037//0021-843x.103.1.137. PMID: 8040475.
- Dalle Grave R, Calugi S, Brambilla F, Abbate-Daga G, Fassino S, Marchesini G. The effect of inpatient cognitive-behavioral therapy for eating disorders on temperament and character. Behav Res Ther. 2007 Jun;45(6):1335-44. doi: 10.1016/j.brat.2006.09.016. Epub 2006 Oct 30. PMID: 17074299.
- Leon GR, Fulkerson JA, Perry CL, Early-Zald MB. Prospective analysis of personality and behavioral vulnerabilities and gender influences in the later development of disordered eating. J Abnorm Psychol. 1995 Feb;104(1):140-9. doi: 10.1037//0021-843x.104.1.140. PMID: 7897036.
- Rikani, A. A., Choudhry, Z., Choudhry, A. M., Ikram, H., Asghar, M. W., Kajal, D., Waheed, A., & Mobassarah, N. J. (2013). A critique of the literature on etiology of eating disorders. Annals of neurosciences, 20(4), 157–161. https://doi.org/10.5214/ans.0972.7531.200409