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What Causes Eating Disorders?

Reviewed by Psychology Today Staff

No one fully understands what gives rise to these painful and confounding illnesses. Eating disorders likely emerge from a complex relationship between genetics, personality traits, and environmental influences such as childhood experiences, social comparison, stressful or traumatic events, and cultural beauty standards. Although the roots of disordered eating will likely remain a mystery for some time, treatment can help those suffering embark on a successful recovery.

Which personality traits and attitudes are linked to eating disorders?

Eating disorders are connected to perfectionism, obsessive compulsive tendencies, and sensitivity to negative emotions. Low self-esteem and body dissatisfaction are risk factors, as well as mental health challenges such as anxiety and depression.

One of the strongest predictors of eating disorders among girls, research suggests, is the value peers place on weight and eating. This tendency is heightened in college, a community of individuals the same age with few older adults to provide broader perspective. The influence of peer perception may contribute to the proliferation of eating disorders on college campuses.

Are eating disorders genetic?

Research in twins, biological families, and adoptive families show that genetics can render people at greater risk of developing a disorder. People who have a family member with an eating disorder face a much greater risk of developing one themselves. For example, studies show that people are 7 to 12 times more likely to develop anorexia or bulimia if they have a relative with an eating disorder.

Those genetic underpinnings may also help explain why eating disorders often overlap with certain conditions, such as depression, anxiety, and obsessive compulsive disorder.

However, one’s genetic predisposition is only one piece of the puzzle. For most people, a triggering event would also be necessary to spur the development of a disorder.

Do stress and trauma lead to eating disorders?

Eating disorders can be spurred by life transitions as well as stressful or traumatic events. Those incidents—such as starting a new job, a sexual assault, or the death of a loved one—can lead to overwhelming and uncontrollable emotions.

Restricting food intake and regulating weight can lead people to feel a sense of control amid the chaos. And sometimes this is the only aspect of life they think they can control. In this way, a triggering event can lead to a persistent disorder.

How do culture, media, and beauty ideals influence eating disorders?

Eating disorders are prominent in Western cultures, which place a strong emphasis on thinness, weight, and beauty. This can lead young adults, especially women, to believe that their self-worth is tied to their weight.

Exposure to images of filtered, edited, and perfected bodies leads to self-comparison—a process that occurs quickly, effortlessly, and sometimes unconsciously. Constant comparison can take a heavy toll on self-esteem and body satisfaction.

Cultural and media scripts may contribute to the development of an eating disorder. However, they cannot produce the condition on their own.

How common are eating disorders?

The lifetime prevalence of eating disorders among adolescents in the U.S. is 3.8 percent for women and 1.5 percent for men, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Among adults in the U.S., the overall prevalence of binge-eating disorder is 1.2 percent, the overall prevalence of anorexia is 0.6 percent, and the overall prevalence of bulimia is 0.3 percent.

Studies that slightly expand the diagnostic criteria find higher estimates of eating disorders, such as 5 percent of adolescent girls or nearly 8 percent of individuals overall. Eating disorders can occur at any time, but they typically develop in one’s adolescence or early twenties.

Has the prevalence of eating disorders increased over time?

Although eating disorders have existed throughout human history, they seem to be growing more widespread today. One large review study found that 3.5 percent of people suffered from an eating disorder in the years 2000 to 2006, yet nearly 8 percent suffered from one in the years 2013 to 2018.

A particularly unsettling trend is that anorexia may be increasing among children. One recent study found that anorexia had increased among 8- to 12-year-olds in the past decade, which is consistent with other research showing that the age of onset for anorexia may be decreasing.

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