Experts have long known that eating disorders generally develop when there is a combination of persistent and continuous behavioral, emotional, biological, environmental, psychological, societal and interpersonal factors. However, no matter how many studies or sample groups are analyzed, the specific cause of any eating disorder is unique to the individual sufferer. Nonetheless, experts agree that there are some common issues that typically correlate with eating disorders.
It is essential to acknowledge that despite the often characteristic preoccupation with food, eating and weight management displayed by eating-disordered individuals, eating disorders are not really about food at all. Individuals with anorexia, bulimia or compulsive overeating disorder use food (either its restriction or over-consumption) as a coping mechanism to gain a sense of control and mitigate painful underlying emotional and psychological issues.
Below are four categories that represent a broad outline of potential causes for eating disorders:
Genetics and Biology: It is quite common for multiple members of a family to have an eating disorder. Many children of eating-disordered mothers develop eating disorders. In these instances, the influence of living with and observing an eating disordered parent’s behavior may additionally contribute to a genetic predisposition. Further evidence of a genetic component is found in research of twins with eating disorders. Experts note that when one twin develops and eating disorder there is a 70 percent chance that the other twin will develop the condition as well.
Scientists also suspect that brain chemistry and other underlying biochemical factors may increase the risk of developing an eating disorder. People with eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia have diminished function of the neurotransmitters serotonin and neuroepinephrine, which also function abnormally in individuals suffering from depression. Those who suffer with eating disorders also exhibit higher-than-normal levels of the hormones vasopressin and cortisol.
Psychological and Emotional Factors
Though it seems counter-intuitive, eating disorders are often used as a survival mechanism. Individuals suffering with depression, anger, low self-esteem, a feeling of loss-of-control, or loneliness often adopt negative food management strategies to compensate for these feelings. What begins as a way of compensating for psychological and emotional turmoil can develop into a full-blown eating disorder, further jeopardizing their mental and physical well-being.
A chaotic or troubled family situation is very common among persons with eating disorders. Also at risk are those individuals who have been teased or bullied, either by peers or family members based on their weight or size. Some studies also trace a connection between a history of physical or sexual abuse and eating disorders.
Unfortunately, we live in a society that reinforces the idea that in order to be happy and successful we have to be thin. The media’s onslaught of imagery promoting impossibly thin super models, rigorous diets, supplements and drugs have a massive effect on vulnerable individuals. The power of the media’s influence along with our cultural obsession with celebrity and perfect bodies has caused generations of persons to develop eating disorders, as they try to fit into a narrow definition of beauty.
These categories are by no means a comprehensive list of factors that are responsible for eating disorders but may serve as a sort of check list for those who are concerned that they or a loved one may be in danger of developing an eating disorder.