This page was medically reviewed by David Waller, (BACP, FDAP), Eating Disorder Programme Lead at Life Works.
Psychological issues like eating disorders are hard to pick apart. Wanting to find a simplistic cause for a complicated issue is understandable – we all want answers to the problems we’re battling with. However, for complex conditions like eating disorders, it’s rarely the case there is a single underlying cause. More commonly, it’s a web of biological and environmental factors that likely contribute to a person developing an eating disorder.
Read on to find out what some of the causes and risk factors for eating disorders are, and how they might differ depending on the type of eating disorder concerned.
What Causes an Eating Disorder?
Key life events
Researchers have set out to investigate how life changing events can affect our mental and physical health. A study published in the Journal of Clinical Nursing established a link between key life events and how they may contribute to the development of an eating disorder. The stress of these events can sometimes cause maladaptive behaviours to form and prevent healthy coping strategies from developing. These behaviours might include things like eating disorders.
They identified six common life triggers that increase the likelihood of someone developing an eating disorder:
- School transition: This could involve either the move from one primary/secondary school to another or the big jump away from home into a university
- Relationships: The divorce of parents could affect a child, as can the breakdown of a romantic relationship
- Death of a loved one: This could include either a family member or close friend. Grief can cause people to change their habits and behaviours
- Moving house or changing jobs: These changes can lead to people feeling vulnerable in their new environments
- Major physical or mental Illness: Weight loss caused by illness could prompt people to continue to lose weight or begin bingeing in order to gain back the lost weight. Other mental health conditions, like anxiety or depression, can also play a role in developing an eating disorder
- Abuse: Abuse can reduce our ability to deal with stress effectively, leading to harmful behaviours
In many people, genetics are likely to play some role in the chances of them developing an eating disorder. This is supported by research, with one study suggesting that 40%-60% of the risk of common eating disorders comes from a genetic influence.
For example, an individual with a parent or sibling who has, or has had, an eating disorder is more likely to develop one than someone with no family history of the disorder.
It’s not that your genes necessarily cause eating disorders, more that they are a risk factor. You might inherit certain personality traits, like anxiety or perfectionism, that contribute in some way to you developing an eating disorder.
In modern society, particularly in certain parts of the world, we are constantly bombarded with images of skinny fashion models and film stars, both in the media and online, and are told that thin is beautiful. This is enhanced by the diet industry, which creates unrelenting pressure on people to lose weight or adopt what society deems to be the perfect body shape. These pressures can be especially heightened in women, but are also present in men. A research review into the causes of eating disorders identified the sociocultural idealisation of thinness to be a leading risk factor in developing an eating disorder.
This makes susceptible individuals highly conscious of their body image and can lead them to take steps to imitate the people who appear on television screens and in fashion magazines. Social media features like filters and online communities like pro-ana compound these pressures every time the person goes online. They might also resort to extreme dieting or a practice like ‘fitspiration’ (a modern trend of viewing fitness or exercise-related content online).
All of the above could then lead to the development of eating disorders like anorexia.
Certain personality traits can make someone more susceptible to eating disorders. Individuals who struggle with an eating disorder are often overachievers or perfectionists. They tend to feel enormous pressure either from others or themselves to perform at the highest level and if they are unable to meet their expectations, they succumb to feelings of worthlessness and low self-esteem that can precipitate the sort of behaviour associated with eating disorders.
They might also be a sensitive individual, leaving them more susceptible to teasing about their body or weight.
Individuals who are more impulsive in nature may be more prone to developing eating disorders such as bulimia nervosa or binge eating disorder.
Causes of Specific Eating Disorders
What Causes Anorexia?
The exact causes of anorexia nervosa, which is when someone develops an unhealthy obsession with being as thin as possible, are complicated and unique to each individual. Given the nature of the disorder, it may be that personality traits, like perfectionism or a sensitivity to social pressures to be thin, play a big role in developing anorexia than other eating disorders – as this study in the Journal of Health Psychology suggested. It might also be that anorexia is an unconscious result of a trauma or an unsettling change in your life.
What Causes Bulimia?
Bulimia is characterised by episodes of binge eating followed by purging. In a study published in The Journal of Treatment & Prevention on causes of bulimia, explanations included family difficulties, a desire for “control” or “perfection,” negative emotions like fear, sadness and anger, and peer pressure to be thin.
What Causes Binge Eating Disorder (BED)?
Research from the American Psychological Association showed a clear link between people who act impulsively in the face of negative emotions (known as negative urgency) and an increase in the likelihood of binge eating. Another study from the same source suggests that depressive symptoms, low self-esteem and body dissatisfaction as an adolescent, were associated with binge eating as an adult.
Can anyone develop an Eating Disorder?
Anyone can develop an eating disorder, but when we look at the demographics of those who do, you can see visible trends. Statistics on eating disorders show that:
- Around 75% of those affected by eating disorders are female
- Eating disorders are most common in people between 16 and 40 years old
Eating Disorder Treatment at Life Works
If you’ve been struggling with an eating disorder, know that effective treatment is available to allow you to regain control of your life. At Life Works, we have a specialist team of medical professionals who dedicate themselves to improving the lives of people suffering from eating disorders of all kinds.
We offer a free, eating disorder assessment, which can be your first step to recovery. We’ll review your dietetic and therapeutic needs, helping us to better understand your specific needs and how we can help you. Use the information below to book your free assessment today.