What Are Causes of Eating Disorders? 3 Different Causes Analyzed

Heather Campbell
 min read

What are causes of eating disorders?

What Are Causes of Eating Disorders? 3 Different Causes AnalyzedIt is important to understand where they’re coming from to be able to deal with them.

As a whole, the causes of eating disorders are complex, and it is difficult to get a complete and perfect picture. They can depend on so many different things. Environment, cultural, biological and psychological factors all come into play, and any related trauma can trigger an eating disorder.

It remains a fascinating question why one person develops an eating disorder with particular life history or after certain drastic events and someone else with a similar story does not.

So what are causes of eating disorders? Read on to understand more.

What are causes of eating disorders? Introduction

Several factors may play a role in developing an eating disorder, but exactly how is not clear to date.

There are as many as 3 different factors that influence the development of eating disorders, which we discuss in detail below.

Three types of causes of eating disorders

Environmental factors

Suppose a person is predisposed to developing an eating disorder due to certain physical and/or psychological factors. In that case, it does not mean they will create an eating disorder. Whether this happens also depends on various environmental factors.

Some factors can protect a person from the development of an eating disorder. For example, other factors will fuel and trigger the vulnerability present and thus increase the likelihood that someone will develop an eating disorder.

Below you can read more detailed information about these types of risk factors in the environment.

Social factors

Many people with eating problems report adverse reactions from those around them about their appearance or weight.

These types of comments are certainly not the cause of eating disorders but, like other environmental factors, can be a trigger to dieting, for example.

This means that specific environments in which appearance and weight are considered necessary can be risky for people who are sensitive to them.

In practice, these may be certain sports or fashion environments or, for example, certain schools.

For example, in some high schools, a lot of attention is placed on appearance, and students judge each other on their clothing and figure. In other schools, the activities determine someone’s popularity.

The most concrete environments where eating disorders are common are the modeling world and certain sports.

This is mainly in sports where body weight is essential, such as distance running, cycling, classical ballet, judo, boxing, and gymnastics.

Some specific requirements for a person’s weight are because they work with weight classes such as judo or boxing. Or because certain exercises can sometimes be performed more efficiently with a lower weight, as can sometimes be the case with gymnastics.

In other cases, it’s more about how someone looks, for example, in ballet and modeling. Then, based on your appearance, you can be approved or rejected and hired or rejected.

The self-imposed pressure can be significant in such cases, whether a person has received direct comments about their weight or whether a person draws their own conclusions based on the prevailing norms.

Family factors

Of course, an essential part of the environment in which a person grows up consists of the family and household situation. A child is, therefore, partly shaped by this and hugely influenced by it.

Education is decisive

In addition to passing on specific traits or vulnerabilities through genes, certain thoughts or behaviors can also be learned.

For example, the situation in which the child grows up and how they are raised can affect how they will later see the world and be in life.

For example, when a mother has an eating disorder, a child is confronted early on with an unhealthy approach to food.

In the process, the child may or may not consciously or intentionally get the message that weight and appearance significantly affect one’s happiness in life and thus be prompted to diet.

Often people who have an eating disorder come from a family where appearance, food and weight play an important role. For example, it is common for one or more family members to suffer from obesity or also have an eating disorder.

If (severe) obesity runs in the family, in addition to heredity, lifestyle and how food is perceived and used will play into the development of an eating disorder.

Psychiatric disorders and eating disorders: Intersections

Depression and addiction are common in families of eating disorder clients.

Since these psychiatric disorders are also common alongside eating disorders and are tangentially related to them, it is not really clear whether genes or upbringing are the deciding factors.

Likely, those with an eating disorder with one or both parents with a psychiatric disorder are predisposed to become depressed or somewhat more addiction-prone.

In addition, you see that people who are depressed or addicted usually do not cope well with difficult situations and find it difficult to cope with their emotions.

This is also a typical characteristic that often underlies the development of eating disorders. Thus, this way of dealing with problems may be learned.

Many people with eating disorders are very sensitive, often feel very responsible, and tend to care for others.

Difficult family situations

Thus, difficult family situations can also indirectly promote eating disorders. For example, the person with an eating disorder in the family will take care of the parents and other family members.

So this person is less likely to solve their own problems by working with (not) eating.

In most cases, the eating disorder is a secret, and one certainly does not want to burden others with one’s own problems. The eating disorder is then seen as something for itself.

Eating disorders as a tool of power

What also sometimes happens is that the eating disorder is actually used as a lightning rod. For example, this is quite often seen when the parents often have intense arguments with each other.

The eating disorder is then consciously or unconsciously seen as a tool of power that can be used to distract the parents and bring them closer together.

After all, nothing bonds people together like a common fear or enemy (in this example, the fear that the joint child will develop serious problems).

Cultural factors

Today, it is mainly women who often have an unrealistic view of their bodies and are dissatisfied with their weight and appearance.

Having said that, men can also suffer from this.

The more significant the difference between a person’s self-perceived and ideal body image (how a person would like to look), the unhappier a person is.

Possibly beauty trends influence our own ideal image.

Nowadays, food is plentiful, and at the same time, being skinny and thin has become fashionable. And so, this trend is evident in the media.

Although fortunately, a counter-movement seems to have started up again whereby slim has become more the norm instead of skinny.

Yet the general perception is that being thin and lean is a sign of attractiveness, ability, happiness, success, and fitness. And this, of course, can create quite a bit of pressure.

Biological factors

Biological factors play a role in the development of an eating disorder.

This refers to physical and hereditary factors:

Hereditary factors

Several surveys and studies indicate a genetic vulnerability to the development of eating disorders.

In other words, some people seem to have a predisposition to developing an eating disorder and are therefore more likely to do so than people who do not have this.

The likelihood of developing an eating disorder is also significantly higher if eating disorders already exist within the family.

Research among identical twins has shown that if one person has anorexia nervosa, there is a whopping 50% chance that their twin will also develop it.

In short, especially with the eating disorder anorexia nervosa, we can speak of a specific hereditary susceptibility or vulnerability to the development of this eating disorder.

Physical factors

Dieting is also a significant risk factor for developing an eating disorder. In fact, it has been proven that when people start dieting, they automatically start thinking about food.

That makes sense because your body thinks there is scarcity (and so your brain reflexively tends to think about food).

Scarcity, and with it the possibility of starvation, is dangerous. So your body tries to tell you that you need to get food again as soon as possible.

So starting to diet can begin an obsession with your diet, body, and weight. And over time, it can cause you to eventually lose the ability to sense whether you are hungry or not.

Because of this, overweight children are more likely to develop an eating disorder. This is because they are more likely to diet, and this can lead one into obsessive behavior pretty quickly.

Psychological factors

Psychological factors influence the onset and development of eating disorders.

Drastic events

Some events can be pretty stressful.

Often people with eating disorders find it difficult to cope with this stress and the associated emotions, which causes them to focus on (not) eating.

Consequently, many people with eating disorders report that they experienced an event that was significant and stressful for them just before the development of their eating disorder.

This does not mean that everyone who has an intense experience immediately develops an (eating) disorder. But it can be a trigger that fuels existing vulnerability.

What is stressful for one person may do little for another. And the amount of stress a person can handle also varies from person to person.

Stressful periods could involve divorce, exams, illnesses of loved ones, relationships that end, a move, a new job, school environment, and so on.

Negative and often traumatic experiences such as being bullied, sexually abused, and mistreated can also contribute to eating disorders.

In fact, victims of this often have a negative body image and self-image , which poses an additional risk for the development of an eating disorder.

Problems that crop up

Life isn’t easy, and everyone has peaks and valleys, ups and downs.

How one deals with these valleys and more mundane difficulties varies from person to person.

Interpretation of problems

First, there is already a difference in how people look at situations and interpret them.

Some people generally have a more positive outlook and can relate better.

Dealing with problems

Second, there is a big difference in the way people deal with problems.

Some confront or try to solve the problem, while others avoid difficult situations and confrontations.

And where one person puts things in perspective and tries to reassure himself, another seeks distraction. Yet another seeks support from his friends or family.

Of course, there is no one best way of dealing with problems; it also always depends on the situation.

In general, it can be said that some ways of dealing with problems are usually by addressing the core problem besides understanding your emotions and seeking support from those around you.

However, this is easier said than done, and it is precisely what most people with eating disorders (and many without eating disorders) struggle with.

So, on the contrary, people with eating disorders are often inclined to wait it out, avoid or even deny conflict, flee into thoughts, emotional and behavioral, or solve it on their own.

This handling of problems makes them vulnerable to the development of different eating disorders. And this way of approach is often at the root of other mental disorders as well.

Character traits

We are all different, and each person is unique. However, the situation is a bit different regarding eating disorders and character traits. In fact, people with eating disorders often share the same character traits.

Consequently, some traits or characteristics are associated with eating disorders and seem to increase the risk of developing them.

Most people with eating disorders have low self-esteem, low self-confidence, negative body perception, and often distorted body image.

They are often perfectionists and find it challenging to deal with their emotions. They are also sensitive and inclined to care for and please others.

People with the same eating disorder often recognize themselves even more strongly in each other:

  • For example, people with anorexia nervosa tend to be more introverted, overly compliant, competitive-minded, and compulsive in nature.
  • In contrast, people with bulimia nervosa tend to be more extroverted, more chaotic, more impulsive, and more need for stimuli.
  • Remember that this is a generalization and does not mean that it applies to everyone.

Causes of eating disorders

What triggers an eating disorder such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa?

The immediate trigger for an eating disorder can be anything, even something small like a move, ending up in a new environment, a love breakup, a forced change of school, the parents’ divorce, being bullied, and so on.

At such more difficult times in life (everyone goes through them), extra support and pats on the back are often really needed.

Striving for control dominates

Unfortunately, they are sometimes mistakenly sought in the control of nutrition since that control of nutrition often still feels like the only controllable thing at such difficult times.

The quest for control can wholly dominate the lives of young people and adults. Unfortunately, there is often a feeling that just being yourself, with all your flaws, is not acceptable in our society.

But what do you do with all the stress, frustration and emotion? Well, some people start channeling these through food. Food is very emotional and involves many phases of our day-to-day lives.

Nutrition to accommodate our emotions: Interferer

Our emotions are often a distraction in a society that loves to control and perfect. And we often don’t know quite how to deal with this.

On the one hand, we must dare to dwell on our emotions; on the other, it is often unclear how to deal with positive and negative emotions.

To celebrate that promotion at work or that new job, we go to dinner at our favorite restaurant. And when we are heartbroken, we opt for chocolate and fatty comfort food.

And a child who does not obey may have to forgo ice cream or that delicious donut as punishment.

In short, the link with food is everywhere in our daily lives. And as wonderful, cozy, and delicious as food can be, there are other options for absorbing emotions.

When you don’t feel happy, you often tend to eat more and comfort yourself, so to speak. Be aware of this so you can stop yourself in time.

Other ways to cope with emotions

Why not take a walk or de-stress at the sports center or sauna instead of devouring 3 scoops of ice cream?

Why do we offer alcoholic beverages to a sad friend? Instead of just spending a quiet moment in nature or the living room on the sofa?

Why not celebrate a promotion, a new job, or a win with a fun activity that has nothing to do with alcohol or food?

Like cycling, organizing a team-building, going to a spa, or enjoying a relaxing massage or manicure?

Break the link between emotion and food

It is essential to keep your emotions as unrelated to food as possible.

That way, you avoid involving food in the slightest emotion and reduce the chances of it all turning into an obsession and an eating disorder.

In practice, the largest group of people in whom eating disorders develop are primarily young people who start dieting for a few pounds less.

But the difference between this and the ordinary weight-loss person is that they seek more self-confidence and self-acceptance through slimming (due to a lack of self-acceptance).

The compliments they receive after the first pounds are lost make these people feel superior and more in control of their lives.

They also increasingly push their limits and often feel there is no turning back.

They often bring themselves down extra by overthinking negatively about themselves while glorifying another. Thus, objective facts are often ignored and replaced by a colored interpretation.

What are causes of eating disorders? Conclusion

What are causes of eating disorders?

Eating disorders occur in all walks of life, both girls and boys. The causes of anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa are unknown and, in any case, complex.

In each case, social, cultural, psychological, and biological factors play a role in developing eating disorders.

The factors most often mentioned today are:

Moreover, the immediate trigger for an eating disorder can differ. It may come from a comment about one’s appearance that is perceived as unfavorable, a move to a new environment, a new job or school, the sudden loss of a loved one and the accompanying grief, and so on.

About Heather Campbell

As a nutritionist, my field of specialization is science-based nutritional advice but more importantly, it is my goal to share capturing and inspiring stories, examples and solutions which can help plus-size individuals overcome their specific difficulties. Read More