Possible Causes of Eating Disorders

Possible Causes of Eating Disorders

As with most psychiatric disorders, experts don’t know what causes eating disorders. Most would agree that it is likely due to a combination of factors rather than one specific thing: genetics, biology, family dynamics and influences, sociocultural pressures, and certain psychiatric disorders.


Research in the past several years has suggested that genetics play a role in developing anorexia and bulimia. Scientists have found two chromosomes that are associated with these two eating disorders. Specific other genes may cause a predisposition to them as well. Genetics could partially explain why eating disorders occur more frequently in individuals with immediate family members who’ve also struggled with an eating disorder.


Brain chemistry may also play a role in the development of eating disorders. This includes serotonin, which is a neurotransmitter and a hormone, as well as specific brain proteins. Serotonin affects both mood and appetite. Hormonal abnormalities, which affect the reproductive system, stress, thyroid function, and hunger, also play a role.

Family Dynamics and Influences

While family dynamics may not cause an eating disorder, it is believed that they may trigger one in someone who is already predisposed to an eating disorder. They may also help perpetuate an eating disorder. Specific family influences may include poor parenting, a history of sexual abuse, a history of obesity, substance abuse or addictions, and a history of psychiatric problems.

Other family issues that may come into play are highly critical siblings and parents and feeling insecure in one’s family. When fathers are required of a boy’s weight, it can trigger bulimic behaviors. Girls who start dieting at a young age are often encouraged to do so by their mothers. Also, young girls are more likely to develop an eating disorder if their mother had one. Also, individuals who’ve had family members tease or ridicule them about their appearance are more likely to develop an eating disorder.

Psychiatric Disorders

Individuals who have certain psychiatric disorders, such as OCD and other anxiety disorders, depression, and personality disorders including avoidant personality, borderline personality, narcissistic personality, and obsessive-compulsive personality, have a greater risk of developing an eating disorder than the general population.

Sociocultural Pressures

It’s long been believed that the obsession with thinness in the U.S. and other countries has played a significant role in developing eating disorders. Both males and females of all ages are constantly bombarded with images of super-thin celebrities and models. The media perpetuates the message that people’s value and attractiveness increase in proportion to how thin they are. The pressure to be narrow or have a specific body shape is so powerful that an alarming number of young girls are either dieting or believe they should be. Starvation and excessive exercise are often seen as the only way to come close to attaining what is often portrayed as the ideal female body – one that is tall and very thin. Sadly, this is a wholly unrealistic and impossible goal for the vast majority of females.

Along these same lines, individuals in certain professions have an exceptionally high risk of developing an eating disorder. Those most vulnerable include dancers (especially ballerinas), models, actors and other celebrities, and athletes. Boxers, wrestlers, runners, and gymnasts are the types of athletes who have the most significant risk.

Other socio-cultural dynamics that are believed to contribute to the high prevalence of eating disorders in recent years include the abundance of food – particularly high-calorie junk food – and the media’s constant attempt to get people to eat it. To complicate matters, even more, weight loss programs and clothes designed for very slender individuals are constantly being advertised on television, in magazines, and on the Internet.

Risk Factors

Several risk factors increase the risk of developing an eating disorder. These include being in one’s teens or early 20s, being female, experiencing a lot of stress, ethnicity (Caucasians have a significant risk than other ethnic groups), being overweight, starting puberty at an early age, and having a chronic medical condition (e.g., diabetes).

The Importance of Treatment

Regardless of the cause, it’s imperative to get treatment for an eating disorder – significantly sooner than later. Most eating disorders lead to significant physical and emotional problems in time. Physical problems can be severe. These can include things like gastrointestinal problems, electrolyte imbalance, and even death. The sooner you get help, the sooner you can prevent these additional problems from wrecking your life.