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The Causes of Eating Disorders

An Overview


Updated May 22, 2012

When I am asked by family members and sufferers about what causes eating disorders, I often describe it in terms of a "perfect storm." There are many complex factors that can lead to disordered eating, including social, interpersonal and genetic factors. When all of these vulnerabilities come together at the right time in a person's life, they can result in anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, or other issues with food and/or weight.

It boils down to a common debate in psychological literature between "nature," or things like genetics, and "nurture," or things like environment and cultural expectations. Unfortunately, these causes, and how they interact with one another, are not fully understood. However, research on the topic continues.

Familial & Genetic Influences


One concern that many parents express is that they have somehow caused their child's eating disorder. Although previous writings on the topic indicated that this was the case, current research shows that this is simply not true. However, it has been shown that eating disorders are familial in nature, meaning that if one person in the family suffers from an eating disorder, others are more likely to as well. This is likely a function of both shared environment as well as genetic and biological factors.

Media Influences


It is widely understood and accepted that Western media, and society at large, promotes the "thin ideal" in many ways. This may be done through print media, such as fashion magazines or advertisements for beauty products, or through televised media in the size of popular actresses. Online media combines still photographs with videos of both celebrities and regular people as well. Multiple studies and surveys have shown the negative impact of television, print, and online media on disordered eating behaviors, self-esteem, and body satisfaction.

The Role of Trauma


It is important to note that many people who suffer from eating disorders have also experienced physical and/or sexual trauma. This is certainly not true for all sufferers, although some studies estimate as many as 50-65% of sufferers have experienced some type of trauma or assault. This may be a function of the fact that sufferers of trauma often experience a range of self-destructive behaviors as a result of their experiences.

Athletes & Dancers


Athletes whose sport or activity focuses on thinness or achieving a specific body type, such as gymnastics, ballet, figure skating or wrestling, have been shown to be at a higher risk than the general population for eating disorders in both males and females. Many of these sufferers use exercise as a form of purging, in addition to other symptoms. Some studies have estimated that as many as 25% of these athletes suffer from a diagnosable eating disorder.


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Bulik, C.M., Sullivan, P.F., Wade, T.D., & Kendler, K.S. (2000). Twin Studies of eating disorders: A review. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 27(1). 1-20.

The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt. (2012). Public survey conducted by The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt finds Facebook use impacts the way many people feel about their bodies. Accessed April 12, 2012 at http://eatingdisorder.org/assets/images/uploads/pdfs/22- publicsurvey.pdf

Costin, C. (2007). The Eating Disorder Sourcebook: A Comprehensive Guide to the Causes, Treatments, and Prevention of Eating Disorders (3rd ed). New York, NY: McGraw Hill.

Field, A.E., et al. (2008). Family, peer, and media predictors of becoming eating disordered. Archives of Adolescent Medicine, 162(6). 574- 579.

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Jett, S., LaPorte, D.J., & Wanchisn, J. (2010). Impact of exposure to pro-eating disorder websites on eating behaviour in college women. European Eating Disorders Review, 18, 410-416.

University of Haifa. (2011). Facebook users more prone to eating disorders. Accessed April 12, 2012 at http://newmedia-eng.haifa.ac.il/?p=4522

Zerbe, K.J. (1995). The Body Betrayed: A Deeper Understanding of Women, Eating Disorders, and Treatment. Carlsbad, CA: Gurze Books.

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