Common Causes Of Eating Disorders

Updated December 13, 2018

Reviewer Laura Angers

There are some different eating disorders. In addition to complications specific to each one, all of the eating disorders result in the individual not getting the nutrients that they need from food either because the individual doesn't eat enough or because they disrupt the digesting process in some way. This can lead to weakness, vitamin and mineral deficiency, a weakened immune system, and even death.

It can be hard to understand eating disorders if you don't have one. Whether you have an eating disorder or not, the beginning of understanding an eating disorder lies in understanding the cause. Understanding the cause of an eating disorder makes it easier for you to overcome your eating disorder or help a loved one overcome theirs.


The causes of eating disorders can be as unique as the individual, and it is beyond the scope of this article to attempt to list every possible cause of an eating disorder. Instead, this article will look at some of the best-understood and most common causes of eating disorders, as well as some of the myths about eating disorders that still shape the way in which many of us understand them.

Risk Factors

Before talking about the causes of eating disorders, it makes sense to briefly discuss some of the risk factors for developing an eating disorder. Risk factors are conditions that make it more likely to develop a condition but do not indicate that a person necessarily will or will not develop the condition.

Risk factors for eating disorders include having a close relative with an eating disorder or other mental health problem, having a history of dieting, and dissatisfaction with body image. Having another mental health problem including depression, anxiety, OCD, PTSD, and drug abuse can also raise a person's risk for developing an eating disorder, as can pregnancy and having type 1 diabetes.

Most organizations agree that there is never a single cause of an eating disorder, but rather that some different factors occur simultaneously for an eating disorder to manifest.


There is a growing body of research to suggest that eating disorders have a genetic component. Because eating disorders are also socially influenced, it used to be thought that they were learned behaviors which could explain why they can run in families. More recent scholarship, however, has found that genes are likely to play a role, though exactly which genes are involved have yet to be determined.

Home Environment

The issue of the degree to which eating disorders are genetic is further complicated by the fact that family pressures may be an additional cause of eating disorders, especially in young people who may use not eating as a way to exercise power that they may not feel they have in other aspects of their lives.

Some people also develop eating disorders as a way of coping with stress or tragedy. This can be another way of expressing power in seemingly powerless situations, but it can also be because of the previously discussed link between eating disorders and emotional disorders like anxiety and depression.


Chemical Imbalance

Some eating disorders may also be caused by imbalances of chemicals or chemical receptors in the brain, similar to the kind of imbalances that may cause some kinds of depression. This may also explain why eating disorders are often experienced by people with mood disorders like anxiety and depression. Specific examples of chemical messengers in the brain that can become imbalanced in eating disorders and in mood disorders include cortisol, which is involved in the stress response, and dopamine and tryptophan, which can help us relax.

Eating disorders can also make these imbalances worse over time. Fat is needed to produce some chemical messengers, as well as to help the body to create or process others. When dietary fat drops because an individual is not eating enough or digesting food properly, and body fat drops because the body is burning it for fuel in the absence of dietary sources of energy, the body has even more problems sending and receiving the chemical signals that make it work energy This can make eating disorders even more difficult for the individual to recover from.

In some cases, however, doctors aren't sure whether these imbalances exist because of an eating disorder, whether the eating disorder exists because of an imbalance, or some combination of the two. Regardless of which it is, restoring the balance of these chemicals through medication is often part of treating an eating disorder, at least in the short term, until the chemicals are in proper balance again. Treatment will also likely include talk-therapy to address the social and emotional aspects of the condition.

Social factors, still a significant contributor to the likelihood that a person will develop an eating disorder, were once seen as the only factor. Now, however, biological factors are receiving far more attention than they once had.


Not only people with other emotional disorders can develop eating disorders. Eating disorders can also develop from character attributes that many people have, like perfectionism, sensitivity to reward systems and a strong appreciation for rules. These attributes help to build a person's personality, but they can also lead to the development or justification of an eating disorder. Many people also develop eating disorders while trying to follow strict diets.


Social Pressures From The Media

As mentioned above, eating disorders do also have a social component that is determined by how society views body weight. It is also why women are more likely to have eating disorders than men. Women are pressured by society to be thin, which can lead to eating disorders, while men are pressured by society to be large, which is more likely to lead to issues like steroid use, though men do also develop eating disorders.

This kind of pressure comes from media, especially television, films, and advertisements. Media tends to make more fit actors and actresses the heroes and loads of films and television programs, while heavier characters are relegated to providing comedic relief, playing low-level villains, or are not represented at all. Some films and television programs also contribute to the social power of eating disorders by glamorizing them or making them seem like a regular part of the teenage experience. For example, in the 2012 coming-of-age film "The Perks of Being a Wallflower," a high school senior played by Emma Watson tells a freshman pal, "I'm not a bulimic, I'm a bulim-ist."

Advertising is even worse, as fashion models are typically underweight, sometimes dangerously so. Images of women in advertisements and magazines are also often edited to make them appear thinner. This can mean that even people of a healthy weight can see themselves as not living up to imaginary or impossible expectations.

Social Pressures From Friends And Family

Social pressures can also come from friends and family. Especially during the teenage years, pressure from peers to look or act a certain way can be intense. This can indirectly add to the likelihood that young people will develop an eating disorder on their own. Some teens also learn about how to foster an eating disorder from friends, as well as how to hide one.

Of course, not only teenagers develop eating disorders. Many of the social pressures that can lead to teenagers developing eating disorders can also impact adults through new forms of social pressure can also arise. One example is "fat shaming," the practice of making someone ashamed of their weight, often by regularly bringing it up in conversation. Much of the time fat shaming is essentially a form of bullying, though it can also be a well-meaning but misguided attempt to express concern about the health implications of too much body fat. Whatever the intention, it often does more harm than good.

Unfortunately, eating disorders are not only partly caused, but also encouraged by societal pressures, even well-meaning ones. Eating disorders can lead to weight loss. When this weight loss is praised, it can be seen by the individual as encouragement to continue in their unhealthy method of losing weight.

Finding Help

There are many causes of eating disorders, and many of those causes are not fully understood. Often, learning more about eating disorders comes at the cost of learning how prevalent they really are and how little we know about them. Once thought to be almost exclusively the concern of Caucasian teenage girls with mean friends, we now know that this outlook was dangerously narrow. Eating disorders can impact people of either sex, of any ethnicity and at any age.

Eating disorders are not to be taken lightly, and a mental health professional should be contacted at the first sign of trouble. Many communities also have support groups where people with eating disorders can learn from one another. Your doctor may know how to get you, or a loved one more information about community resources near you.

If you or a loved one have an eating disorder and want help, or want to learn more about eating disorders and what treatment options may be like, visit to learn more about how you can find help by talking to a licensed therapist or counselor online.

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