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What Causes Eating Disorders?
As social factors surrounding body image and access to unhealthy foods worsen, eating disorders are sadly becoming more and more prevalent. Combined with psychological factors like depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses, many struggle with unhealthy eating habits.
While eating disorder treatments improve yearly, education and awareness are our best tools to save lives. Understanding the underlying causes of eating disorders is essential to identifying who is most at risk for developing eating disorders.
Common Causes of Eating Disorders
Although the exact cause of eating disorders isn’t known, research has identified several risk factors that make someone more likely to develop one. That being said, not everyone with these risk factors is guaranteed to develop an eating disorder.
Truthfully, anyone of any background could develop unhealthy eating behaviors that lead to an eating disorder. Being more aware of your personal risk factors is a good way to catch signs of an eating disorder developing and seek help before life-threatening symptoms can occur.
Similar to other mental health conditions, people with certain genes may be more prone to developing an eating disorder in their lifetime. Many patients with eating disorders have a parent, grandparent, or sibling who has struggled with the condition at some point.
Ask your family members if they can recall any family history of eating disorders. While the presence of eating disorders in your family doesn’t guarantee you’ll develop issues, it won’t hurt to be aware of any risk factors you have.
There’s no question that high-sugar foods affect our brain chemistry and cause many medical complications. However, they can also play a role in our mental health and the development of eating disorders by affecting the production of serotonin and dopamine in the brain.
Serotonin and dopamine are two chemicals strongly linked to feelings of happiness and pleasure, respectively. Research shows that when high-sugar foods disrupt these chemicals, they can lead to unhealthy eating patterns and an increased risk of eating disorders.
Certain eating habits can also increase the chances of developing an eating disorder, especially extreme dieting, purging, and overeating. For many people who engage in unhealthy dieting, their issues begin due to concerns over body image, body weight, or body shape.
Patients may observe parents, guardians, or peers engaging in unhealthy eating habits in other cases and copy their behavior. Growing up with food scarcity can also lead to people overeating or lacking control over how much they eat for fear there won’t be a next meal.
Trauma and Other Stressors
It’s not uncommon for eating disorders to be caused or worsened by trauma, stress, or co-occurring mental health issues.
For instance, the trope of eating a gallon of ice cream after a negative experience is a perfect example of emotional overeating, a common issue with bulimia and binge eating disorder.
While there’s nothing inherently wrong with eating something tasty after a rough day, it can become an issue if the behavior begins happening constantly. On the other hand, others may deal with stress by not eating at all or excessively exercising to cope with stress.
An eating disorder can develop when these behaviors start to take over an individual’s life and lead to serious health consequences.
What Risk Factors Contribute to Developing an Eating Disorder?
Risk factors are the health or family circumstances that make someone more at risk of developing an eating disorder than others.
The risk factors listed here don’t guarantee that an individual will inevitably develop an eating disorder; instead, they are simply a sign to be vigilant about your eating behaviors and to look out for warning signs that you’re starting to have an unhealthy relationship with food.
Common risk factors associated with the development of eating disorders include:
- Genetics: People with family members with an eating disorder are also more likely to have one due to certain genetic and biological factors.
- Crash dieting and restriction: People who engage in fad diets, unhealthy diets, detoxes, and cleanses are likelier to take their food restriction too far and into eating disorder territory. Often, dieting can get so intense that individuals may develop an intense fear of certain foods or focus on unhealthy perfectionism in their diet.
- Experience bullying for their weight: With the prevalence of social media and unrealistic beauty standards, adolescents are receiving more pressure now than ever to achieve weight loss or a certain body type at any cost. Weight gain or higher body weight is often seen as an easy target for bullies, influencing people to lose weight no matter the consequences.
- Other mental health problems: Individuals with obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety disorders, depression, substance use disorder, borderline personality disorder, and trauma are more likely to develop an eating disorder.
Warning Signs of Eating Disorders
Eating food is integral to our lives, so the signs of an eating disorder can be difficult to spot unless you know what to look for. This is not an exhaustive list, as other factors can lead to some of these symptoms.
Common warning signs of eating disorders include:
- Preoccupation with food, weight, body size, and fitness
- Skipping meals or taking small portions of food at regular meals
- Frequent checking in the mirror for perceived flaws in appearance
- Eating large amounts of food in a short period
- Struggling with and/or hiding the evidence of episodes of binge eating
- Intense body dissatisfaction, low self-esteem, and perfectionism about weight and body image
- Scarred knuckles from inducing vomit-purging
- Abusing laxatives and other weight loss supplements
- Denial that extreme thinness is a problem
- Serious health side effects like low blood pressure, constipation, anemia, malnutrition, esophagus damage, acid reflux, heart attack, and stroke
Is Food Addiction an Eating Disorder?
While their symptoms may overlap, food addiction and eating disorders are separate. Food addiction occurs when an individual becomes dependent on the flood of dopamine in their brain’s reward center caused by overeating certain foods high in sugar, carbs, and salts.
On the other hand, eating disorders are behavioral conditions that feature persistent and severe disturbances in eating behaviors that cause distressing thoughts and emotions about food. That being said, the two conditions can co-occur.
For example, someone with a binge eating disorder may overeat foods high in sugar, salts, and carbs, thus triggering a flood of dopamine in their brain that they eventually become dependent on to function.
Getting Treatment For Eating Disorders
Finding eating disorder treatment may feel overwhelming, but thankfully, these disorders are well-researched, and many mental health professionals are ready to help you recover.
You can always start by speaking with your doctor about your concerns to see what treatment options might work for you. You can also try the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD) Eating Disorders Helpline and the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline.
Another option is to try the treatment locator provided online by SAMHSA or call their helpline at 1-800-662-4357 (HELP) to locate providers that treat eating disorders in your area.
FAQ's About the Causes of Eating Disorders
Are eating disorders genetic?
They can be. Research has shown that individuals whose parents or siblings have eating disorders are at increased risk of developing one as well. That’s why knowing your family history of eating disorders can be a vital tool for avoiding unhealthy eating behaviors that lead to eating disorders.
Can an eating disorder be cured?
No. Eating disorders cannot be cured like other mental illnesses and even addiction. Instead, people with eating disorders can recover from their illness through psychotherapy (e.g., cognitive behavioral therapy), nutrition counseling, the support of loved ones, and other healthcare interventions.
Can you have more than one eating disorder?
Yes. While it’s uncommon, some individuals may develop more than one eating disorder. For example, someone may begin extreme food restriction common in anorexia nervosa but may turn to binge/purging behaviors common in bulimia nervosa.
Are eating disorders considered mental illnesses?
According to the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition), eating disorders are behavioral disorders. Because the DSM recognizes them, you could consider them mental illnesses.
Eating disorders are also often accompanied by other mental illnesses like OCD, anxiety disorders, depression, or personality disorders.
Can eating disorders cause infertility?
Yes, they can. Infertility is a common negative effect for patients with anorexia nervosa or with dangerously low body weights. When a woman’s weight drops too low, the body will stop releasing the hormone responsible for ovulation (releasing an egg) and menstruation.
When a healthy weight is restored, menstruation and ovulation will often resume. However, this is not guaranteed; some patients may need medical help to conceive after an eating disorder recovery.
Will an eating disorder kill you?
Eating disorders, unfortunately, have a very high mortality rate due to the highly destructive effects they can have on the body.
Many patients with eating disorders experience malnutrition, organ damage, osteoporosis, esophagus damage, and gastrointestinal problems. They are also at serious risk for heart attack and stroke due to electrolyte imbalances caused by dehydration and malnutrition.