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What Can Cause Eating Disorders

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Gene And Environment Interplay

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Neither genes nor environment cause eating disorders on their own. Eating disorders are likely the result of a complicated interplay of these factors. Even when a precipitating factor can be identified, there is almost always a combination of other contributing factors. The precipitating factor is most likely the trigger that tripped a cascade of events.

Genetic susceptibility may influence their response to certain stressors. For example:

  • A person who is genetically susceptible to an eating disorder may be more sensitive to weight-related teasing and have a heightened reaction to it .
  • A person who is genetically vulnerable may continue dieting much longer than peers who diet and then stop.
  • A person who has the temperament that commonly underlies anorexia nervosa may seek out the types of social environments that contribute to the onset of dieting.

How To Know If You Struggle With Body Image Issues That You Manage Through Food

Its common that people who struggle with body image issues tie their emotions and sense of self-worth to their weight, as well as to eating. People with eating disorders tend to associate food and fullness with shame or guilt, and they often associate purging, restricting, and hunger with self-control or virtue. This mindset can lead to excessive dieting, restriction, and/or bingeing: behaviors that often precede or cause an eating disorder.

Body image issues are all too common. By age 6, girls especially start to express concerns about their own weight or shape, and 40-60% of girls ages 6-12 are worried about gaining weight. Over one-half of teenage girls and nearly one-third of teenage boys use unhealthy weight control behaviors such as skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting, and taking laxatives.

Signs Of Anorexia Nervosa

People with anorexia nervosa have an extreme fear of gaining weight. They often diet and exercise relentlessly, sometimes to the point of starvation. About one-third to one-half of anorexics also binge and purge by vomiting or misusing laxatives. People with anorexia have a distorted body image, thinking they are overweight when in fact they are underweight. They may count calories obsessively and only allow themselves tiny portions of certain specific foods. When confronted, someone with anorexia will often deny that thereâs a problem.

The signs of anorexia can be subtle at first, because it develops gradually. It may begin as an interest in dieting before an event like a school dance or a beach vacation. But as the disorder takes hold, preoccupation with weight intensifies. It creates a vicious cycle: The more weight the person loses, the more that person worries and obsesses about weight.

The following symptoms and behaviors are common in people with anorexia:

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Emotional Symptoms Of An Eating Disorder

The emotional symptoms of an eating disorder are as varied as the causes, and they can sometimes have consequences that are as serious as the underlying disorder from which they spring. If you are feeling the effects of what you think may be an eating disorder, dont hesitate to reach out for help call us at as soon as you can.

What Questions Should I Ask My Doctor

Causes of Eating Disorders

If you have an eating disorder, you may want to ask your healthcare provider:

  • What type of eating disorder do I have?
  • What is the best treatment for the eating disorder I have?
  • What are the treatment risks and side effects?
  • What type of follow-up care do I need after treatment?
  • Should I look out for signs of complications?

A note from Cleveland Clinic

Eating disorders are a serious problem that can affect your mental and physical health. If you think you have an eating disorder, dont be embarrassed about seeking help. Millions of Americans struggle every day with an eating disorder. With proper medical care and mental health counseling, you can get better. Years of living with an untreated eating disorder can harm your physical health and may lead to life-threatening problems. Take the first step to protecting your well-being by talking to your healthcare provider.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 10/07/2020.


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Causes Of Eating Disorders

While its unclear why exactly someone develops an eating disorder, some people believe they stem from social pressures to be thin caused by social media and fashion magazines. Others believe eating disorders are a way to feel in control.

Most specialists believe that eating disorders develop because of a combination of psychological, environmental and genetic factors.

Psychological factors could be:

  • Being vulnerable to depression and anxiety
  • Finding stress hard to manage
  • Worrying a lot about the future
  • Being a perfectionist
  • Having obsessive or compulsive feelings
  • Fear of being labelled fat or overweight

Environmental factors could be:

  • Criticism for your body shape or eating habits
  • Difficult family relationships
  • Having a job or hobby where being thin is seen as ideal

Genetic factors could be:

  • Changes in your brain or hormone levels
  • Family history of eating disorders, depression or substance misuse

In this section

Understanding Food And Body Image Struggles

What does it mean to struggle with body image? According to the American Psychological Association, body image is defined as both the mental picture you form of your own body and the attitude you have towards its characteristics. Many of us internalize messages from a young age that can lead to either a positive or negative body image.

  • If you have a positive body image, you have a clear, realistic perception of your body. You see and accept your body as it truly is and youre aware that your physical appearance doesnt determine your value as a person.
  • Having a negative body image means youre likely to have a distorted perception of your body. You may have trouble accepting how your body looks and how much it affects your self-worth. If you struggle with body image, you may feel deep shame, anxiety, and self-consciousness related to your physical appearance.

For those who suffer from eating disorders like anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, emotions and sense of self-worth are directly, and disproportionately linked to weight, and therefore, food intake. National surveys estimate that in the US, 20 million women and 10 million men will develop an eating disorder at some point in their lives. And according to the National Institute of Mental Health, eating disorders are most common in teens or young adults specifically young women. But eating disorders can also affect people of all ages, backgrounds, body weights, and ethnicities.

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Eating Disorders Can Be Treated

No matter what the cause, eating disorders are treatable particularly when care is provided by an experienced, specially-trained team. If you or someone you love is struggling with an eating disorder, please call us at 877-825-8584 for a free, confidential assessment with a Masters-level clinician.

Eating Recovery Center is accredited through the Joint Commission. This organization seeks to enhance the lives of the persons served in healthcare settings through a consultative accreditation process emphasizing quality, value and optimal outcomes of services.

Organizations that earn the Gold Seal of Approval have met or exceeded The Joint Commissions rigorous performance standards to obtain this distinctive and internationally recognized accreditation. Learn more about this accreditation here.

A Negative Body Image

Causes of Binge Eating Disorder (BED)

Your body image is the result of your thoughts, attitudes, and perceptions about your physical appearance. It is the subjective opinion you have of your body, which contrasts how your body appears. It is a construct of thoughts, beliefs, feelings, perceptions, and behaviours. A negative body image is a flawed perception of your shape that involves feelings of self-consciousness, shame, and anxiety. It presents through dissatisfaction with your appearance and compensatory behaviours, such as dieting.

While eating disorders have no single cause, body dissatisfaction is a primary factor in the development of bulimia and anorexia. For many people struggling with an eating disorder, their weight and body shape determine their self-worth. This excessive self-evaluation influences how you experience your body weight and shape. It also contributes to your inability to acknowledge the severity of your low body weight if you are struggling with anorexia.

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Signs Of Bulimia Nervosa

People with bulimia nervosa have episodes of eating large amounts of food followed by purging , fasting, or exercising excessively to compensate for the overeating.

Unlike anorexia, people with bulimia are often a normal weight. But they have the same intense fear of gaining weight and distorted body image. They see themselves as âfatâ and desperately want to lose weight. Because they often feel ashamed and disgusted with themselves, people with bulimia become very good at hiding the bulimic behaviors.

The following are common signs of bulimia:

  • Evidence of binge eating, including disappearance of large amounts of food in a short time, or finding lots of empty food wrappers or containers
  • Evidence of purging, including trips to the bathroom after meals, sounds or smells of vomiting, or packages of laxatives or diuretics
  • Skipping meals or avoiding eating in front of others, or eating very small portions
  • Exercising excessively
  • Wearing baggy clothes to hide the body
  • Complaining about being âfatâ
  • Using gum, mouthwash, or mints excessively
  • Constantly dieting
  • Scarred knuckles from repeatedly inducing vomiting

Getting Help For An Eating Disorder

If you believe you may have an eating disorder or if you have a friend or family member who might, then its important to take action as soon as you can. Many eating disorders can rise to the level of being a life-threatening condition if theyre allowed to go untreated, so theres no reason to delay. Please call for help getting in touch with resources and programs in your area that specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of eating disorders. The line is always open with a trained professional waiting to answer your questions at any time.

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Social & Cultural Factors That Can Contribute To Eating Disorders

  • Cultural pressures that glorify “thinness” & place value on obtaining the perfect body
  • Narrow definitions of beauty that include only women & men of specific body weights & shapes
  • Cultural norms that value people based on physical appearance
  • The medias portrayal of the ultra-thin ideal of beauty

Adapted from National Eating Disorder Association, 2006:

Avoidant/restrictive Food Intake Disorder

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ARFID is when someone avoids certain foods, limits how much they eat or does both.

Beliefs about weight or body shape are not reasons why people develop ARFID.

Possible reasons for ARFID include:

  • negative feelings over the smell, taste or texture of certain foods
  • a response to a past experience with food that was upsetting, for example, choking or being sick after eating something
  • not feeling hungry or just a lack of interest in eating

You can find out more about ARFID on the Beat website.

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Why Can This Be Hard To Manage

There are a number of reasons people might struggle with body image and eating disorders. Many people struggle with an eating disorder without any family or friends noticing, because eating disorders often entail shame and secrecy. Additionally, negative body image and eating disorders tend to be rooted in deeper psychological struggles, such as low self-esteem and feelings of helplessness. Anorexia nervosa tends to be linked with perfectionism, while bulimia nervosa is linked with impulsiveness. Once people start engaging in abnormal eating patterns, these habits become more deeply ingrained and harder to shake.

Dieting As A Cultural Norm

Dieting has become common and normalized in our society. So much so, that children are dieting at alarming rates. Nearly a third of children age five to six choose an ideal body size that is thinner than their current perceived size.1 By age six, children are aware of dieting and may have tried it,2, 3 and by the time they are seven years old, one in four children has engaged in some kind of dieting behavior.4 This trend for dieting and being thin is a relatively new phenomenon in the course of history. Less than one hundred years ago, Americans strived for excess body fat. They viewed fatness as a sign of success, health, and beauty. At this time, physicians were even encouraging Americans to gain weight, and they believed that a balanced personality was obtained by having a large number of fat cells. Between 1890 and 1920 specifically, Americas image of the ideal body completely changed from one of healthful plumpness to one where fatness became associated with sloth. This was due to numerous factors including the departure of the corset which left women dissatisfied with their natural shapes. The industrial revolution led to the standardization of dress sizes. Advances in food science including the discovery of the calorie led to a way to quantify our health, all while urbanization meant that more people were working in sedentary jobs with access to more and more overly processed, refined foods.

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Treatments For Eating Disorders

Starting treatment as early as possible is important because there can be long-term health consequences for people with chronic eating disorders.

There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to treating eating disorders since everyone is different. Often a team of health professionals is involved in an individual’s treatment, including a psychologist, dietitian and doctor.

Some of the treatment options include:

Treatment And Recovery For People With Eating Disorders

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Many different forms of therapy are available. It is important to remember that different approaches work for different people. Finding the right approach and early intervention maximises prospects of recovery. Professional help and support from others is important.Because eating disorders affect people physically and mentally, a range of health professionals might be involved in treatment, including:

  • psychiatrists

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So What Causes An Eating Disorder

  • The shame of having an eating problem
  • The eating disorder is useful- this is a big issue for most people with an active eating problem. Purging can become a way to manage moods or to get through the day.
  • Perhaps I dont deserve to get help / I should be able to crack this on my own.
  • I am not ill enough or, there are people much more worse off than me.

How You Can Help

If you are even slightly concerned about the eating behaviors of your child or adolescent, you should contact their pediatrician as soon as possible. Their pediatrician can direct you to the type of help that is needed for your child, including Physicianâs Access at Childrenâs Minnesota if your child needs inpatient care CTED due to medical complications from an eating disorder.

Awareness and education about mental health and eating disorders are also important. Parents and organizations that work closely with children and adolescents â including schools, pediatrician offices, youth sports programs, social service agencies, etc. â can use eating disorder awareness and educational tools developed by the National Eating Disorder Association . NEDA also organizes awareness activities like walks, awareness weeks and body positive social media campaigns.

Get more information about care for eating disorders at Childrenâs Minnesotaâs Center for the Treatment of Eating Disorders.

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When Should I Call The Doctor

You should call your healthcare provider if you have an eating disorder and you:

  • Find that your relationship to food is causing you distress.
  • Find that your relationship to food is getting in the way of your everyday activities.
  • Have a severe sore throat or acid reflux.
  • Have slurred speech or blurred vision.

Risk Factors Of Body Image Struggles


There are several external factors that can increase someones risk of developing a negative body image. Family, friends, acquaintances, media, and most prominently now, social media, can have an impact on how we perceive and feel about our body. Additionally, people in environments that are focused on appearance or those who receive negative feedback about their appearance are also at an increased risk. And, as we mentioned, people with body image struggles may also struggle with food.

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What Can I Do About It

You may have a lot of difficult feelings around finding helpit isnt always an easy step to take. Many people who experience an eating disorder are scared to go into treatment because they may believe that they will have to gain weight. Many also feel a lot of shame or guilt around their illness, so the thought of talking about very personal experiences can seem overwhelming. Some people find comfort in their eating behaviours and are scared to find new ways to cope. Restricting food, bingeing, and purging can lead to serious health problems, but eating disorders are treatable and you can recover. A good support team can help you through recovery and teach important skills that last a lifetime.

Treatment for an eating disorder usually involves several different health professionals. Some people may need to spend time in hospital to treat physical health problems.

Eating Disorder Symptoms Causes And Effects

Eating disorders are among the most dangerous and difficult to treat of the addiction issues people face. It is easy to see why food is inescapable. Its pretty obvious that a $200-a-day heroin habit is problematic, but everybody needs to eat food every day. While nobody needs cocaine, even the most strenuous binge eater will have need of food every few hours, making recovery a daily struggle.

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Types Of Eating Disorders

The most common eating disorders are:

  • anorexia nervosa trying to control your weight by not eating enough food, exercising too much, or doing both
  • bulimia losing control over how much you eat and then taking drastic action to not put on weight
  • binge eating disorder eating large portions of food until you feel uncomfortably full

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