Eating Disorders - Causes of eating disorders

Eating Disorders Causes Of Eating Disorders 2727
Photo by: Ana Blazic Pavlovic

A number of factors contribute to the development of eating disorders. Some are biological and genetic in nature, while others are a direct result of the cultural and familial environment in which an individual is raised.


Although eating disorders affect women more than men, a large number of males suffer from anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa as well as binge-eating disorder and exercise addiction. In fact, 5 to 10 percent of people suffering from anorexia are male, and approximately 10 to 15 percent of people with bulimia are male. The percentages may even be higher as some experts suspect that few men actually seek help because they are ashamed and embarrassed that they have what has come to be viewed as a "female" problem.

Many male eating-disorder sufferers participate or have participated in a sport that demands a certain body type, such as wrestling and running. Wrestlers are a notoriously high-risk group because many try to lose additional pounds rapidly just prior to a match. This allows the wrestler to compete in a lower weight-class while having developed the skill and strength for a higher weight-class in practice. To accomplish this rapid weight loss, unhealthy weight reduction methods, such as fasting and purging, are often used.

Being overweight in childhood can also influence the development of an eating disorder in males. And dieting, a well-known trigger for eating disorders, can start the development of disordered eating in males.

Biological Factors

There are factors contributing to the development of eating disorders that are biological, or genetic. For example, if a person has a relative in her immediate family with an eating disorder, she is at a higher risk to develop an eating disorder.

Additional biological factors contributing to disordered eating can be triggered by the initial act of starving, binge-eating, or purging. This is because these behaviors can change an individual's chemical balance, particularly brain chemistry. Starvation and overeating lead to the production of brain chemicals that induce feelings of peace and euphoria (happiness). These good feelings mask feelings of anxiety and depression, both of which are commonly experienced by people suffering from eating disorders. This has caused certain researchers to conclude that some people with eating disorders use (or do not use) food as a relief when they are feeling poorly about themselves.

Of note is the fact that certain researchers believe that depression, which is also genetic, can be the cause of an eating disorder. (See section on depression later in this chapter.)

Psychological Factors

People suffering from eating disorders share many of the same personality traits. For example, eating-disordered people lean toward being perfectionists. Furthermore, many of them suffer from feelings of low self-esteem, despite their accomplishments and perfectionist ways. Extremist thinking, too, is present in many people with eating disorders. These individuals assume that if being thin is "good" then being even thinner is better. This leads to the thought that being the thinnest is the absolute best; it is this thinking that pushes some anorectics to plummet to body weights of fifty or sixty pounds.

Often, people who live with eating disorders have no sense of self. They simply do not feel that they know who they are or what their place in the world is. An eating disorder, however, offers a sense of identity to these individuals in that it enables them to say, "I am thin," and "I am dieting." This eventually leads them to define themselves solely on their appearance and their dangerous actions rather than with positive, healthy accomplishments.

Social Factors

Eating disorders, in general, occur primarily in industrialized societies, such as the United States, Australia, Canada, Europe, and Japan. In all of these places, the media (TV, movies, magazines) bombard people with the virtues and importance of being thin. It is endlessly implied in television

Many people with eating disorders have a distorted view of their bodies, seeing themselves as overweight when, in fact, they are not. (Photograph by Robert J. Huffman. Field Mark Publications. Reproduced by permission.)
Many people with eating disorders have a distorted view of their bodies, seeing themselves as overweight when, in fact, they are not. (Photograph by
Robert J. Huffman. Field Mark Publications
. Reproduced by permission.)

shows, movies, and advertisements that thinness will bring a person success, power, approval, popularity, friends, and romantic relationships. Women, in particular, are held to an almost-impossible-to-achieve standard of physical fitness and beauty, the height of which is being slender and thin. (In fact, female fashion models now weigh an average of 25 percent less than an average

To match the proportions of a Barbie doll, a woman with a normal shape (left) would have to transform her height, waist, and bust to appear like the figure on the right. (Photograph by Jill Greenberg © 1996. Reprinted with permission of Discover Magazine.)
To match the proportions of a Barbie doll, a woman with a normal shape (left) would have to transform her height, waist, and bust to appear like the figure on the right. (Photograph by
Jill Greenberg
© 1996. Reprinted with permission of
Discover Magazine

woman.) Because of these media messages, and correlating comments from young women about their weight and body shape, a link between eating disorders and social pressures can be established.

Family Factors

People are shaped in part by their experiences with their families. Families contribute to an individual's emotional growth. If someone is raised in a dysfunctional family, she may have feelings of abandonment and loneliness. Certain families have dynamics in which rigidity, overprotectiveness, and emotional distance are commonplace. If parents make all of a child's decisions for her, when she gets to adolescence and needs to make decisions for herself, she may find she doesn't have the tools to do so. All of these dynamics can promote the development of eating disorders in the future.

Families in which unrealistically high expectations are placed on the children can also lead these individuals to develop disordered eating. The disordered eating is used as a way to cope with feelings of inadequacy and as a way to control at least one area of their lives. Children also receive their first messages about their bodies from their families. If parents place too much emphasis on physical appearance, it can lead to low self-esteem in those children, placing them at risk for developing eating disorders when they are older.

Most children learn their eating habits and food preferences from their families. Often times, cleaning one's plate or not eating too much or even parents' close control of what their child eats can lead to disordered eating later in life. Parents' attitudes toward food and their own bodies greatly affect children's attitudes toward food and how they will feel about themselves.


Actress Ally Sheedy. (AP/Wide World Photos. Reproduced by permission.)
Actress Ally Sheedy. (
AP/Wide World Photos
. Reproduced by permission.)

Paula Abdul, Singer

Justine Bateman, Actor

Karen Carpenter, Singer*

Nadia Comaneci, Gymnast

Susan Dey, Actor

Diana, Princess of Wales

Jane Fonda, Actor/Activist

Zina Garrison, Tennis Player

Tracy Gold, Actor

Heidi Guenther, Ballet Dancer*

Margaux Hemingway, Actor

Christy Henrich, Gymnast*

Daniel Johns, Musician

Kathy Johnson, Gymnast

Gelsey Kirkland, Ballet Dancer

Lucy Lawless, Actor

Gilda Radner, Actor/Comic

Cathy Rigby, Gymnast

Joan Rivers, Comic

Ally Sheedy, Actor

* indicates death resulting from the eating disorder


Triggers are items or events that spark the beginning of other events. Eating disorders are often triggered by an event or a circumstance in the life of an individual who is already prone to developing such a condition. A period of adjustment, such as leaving home to attend summer camp, prep school, or college, can easily trigger disordered eating in an individual with such tendencies already in place. A traumatic event in someone's life, such as sexual abuse, can also trigger the development of an eating disorder. Other triggers can seem harmless yet represent large life changes, such as moving, starting a new school or job, graduation, and even marriage. Whatever the trigger is, it is usually closely tied to the end of a valued relationship or a feeling of loneliness.

The most common trigger of an eating disorder, however, is dieting. Very often dieting can lead people to disordered eating of some sort, including anorexia or bulimia.

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