Eating disorders, including anorexia and bulimia, are complicated, serious and potentially devastating. They’re caused by a complex combination of factors, including genetic, biochemical, psychological, cultural and environmental. While researchers haven’t been able to pinpoint the specifics behind these causes, they can identify various factors that make individuals susceptible to eating disorders.
There are many misconceptions in our society about what causes eating disorders. Eating disorders are rarely about food or wanting to be thin. Instead, sufferers use food and unhealthy behaviors like dieting, starving, bingeing and purging to cope with unpleasant and overwhelming emotions and stressful situations. At least in the short term, these behaviors relieve anxiety and stress. Long term, however, they actually increase anxiety and stress and create other serious complications.
Eating disorders are illnesses, not character flaws or choices. Individuals don’t choose to have an eating disorder. You also can’t tell whether a person has an eating disorder just by looking at their appearance. People with eating disorders can be underweight, normal weight or overweight. It’s impossible to diagnose anyone just by looking at them.
While no one thing causes eating disorders, here are some of the factors that may contribute to the problem:
Genetics has a significant contribution and may predispose individuals to eating disorders. Researchers have found that eating disorders tend to run in families. Also, there seem to be higher rates of eating disorders in identical twins than in fraternal twins or other siblings. In addition, specific chromosomes have been linked to both bulimia and anorexia.
Individuals with eating disorders may have abnormal levels of certain chemicals that regulate such processes as appetite, mood, sleep and stress. For instance, both people with bulimia and anorexia have higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Some research also suggests that individuals with anorexia have too much serotonin, which keeps them in a constant state of stress.
Various psychological factors can contribute to eating disorders. In fact, eating disorders are common in individuals who struggle with clinical depression, anxiety disorders and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Other factors include:
• Low self-esteem
• Feelings of hopelessness and inadequacy
• Trouble coping with emotions or expressing your emotions
Dieting, body dissatisfaction and wanting to be thin are all factors that increase the risk for an eating disorder. Unfortunately, our society encourages all three. You can’t walk by a cash register without seeing a magazine that encourages rapid weight loss, calorie counting or feeling guilty after a meal. Here are some aspects of our culture that contribute to eating disorders:
• An over-emphasis on appearance, at the expense of more meaningful attributes
• Societal beauty standards that promote an unrealistically thin body shape
• Associating thinness with positive qualities like attractiveness, health, success and love
• Media’s focus on dieting and striving for a slim and toned silhouette
• Messages that perpetuate a fear of fat and food; viewing fat as undesirable or foods as “good,” “bad” or “sinful”
Your environment can also play a major role in developing an eating disorder. These factors include:
• Family or other relationship problems
• Difficult or turbulent childhood
• History of physical or sexual abuse
• Activities that encourage thinness or focus on weight, such as gymnastics, dancing, running, wrestling and modeling
• Peer pressure
• Being bullied because of weight or appearance in general