Causes of Eating Disorders

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Do you know all the variables that can cause an eating disorder in your teen?  (Photo credit: andrefaria)

When a teenager is diagnosed with an eating disorder one of the most common questions parents ask is what caused the disorder to develop.  This is an understandable response, but the unfortunate fact is that there isn’t a simple answer to this question.  Disordered eating is a complex problem and there are many factors that can contribute to its development.   According to the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), eating disorders evolve out of a combination of behavioral, biological, emotional, psychological, interpersonal, and social factors.   This means that each individual that is diagnosed has their own set of circumstances within those common factors that lead to the development of their disorder.

Many people assume that when a person struggles with disordered eating it is about the food, their weight, or even their appearance.  On the surface the outward symptoms of an eating disorder might support that assumption.  For example, someone who is suffering from anorexia nervosa may seem obsessed with their weight and their caloric intake.  They might track every calorie they ingest, worry about getting fat, and obsess about exercising.   All these seem to support the assumption that the person has an issue with their weight.  However, most experts agree that many people with eating disorders use food and their control over food as a coping mechanism.   The exertion of extreme control over their diet can help them feel in control when other things are out of control, overwhelming, or too emotionally charged to handle.

Although there is often no clean, simple cause to blame when an eating disorder is diagnosed, there are some common factors that are known to contribute to their development.

Biological Factors

  • Some people that suffer from eating disorders have a chemical imbalance in their brain associated with the neurological chemicals that control things like appetite and hunger.
  • There appears to be a significant genetic component to disordered eating.
  • More research needs to be done in this area to study how genetics and neuro-chemicals can contribute to disordered eating.

Emotional Factors

  • There is evidence that stressful times, major life changes, and traumatic events can lead to the development of an eating disorder.  If you consider that disordered eating is about establishing a feeling of control over one’s life, it makes sense that events that shake up a person’s world or alter it altogether could lead to the development of these conditions.

Psychological Factors

  • Issues with self-confidence, self worth, and self-esteem can contribute to disordered eating.
  • Feelings of hopelessness, inadequacy, anxiety, and loneliness can also lead to the development of a disorder.
  • Mental health conditions like depression and anxiety might also precede or go hand in hand with the development of an eating disorder.

Interpersonal Factors

  • Problems interacting with other people and trouble with personal relationships can be a contributing factor along with struggling to express emotions and difficulties dealing with feelings.
  • A history of being bullied, especially if the bullying behavior centered on weight.
  • A history of some form of abuse including physical, sexual, or emotional abuse.

Social Factors

  • Cultural messages that value beauty over other attributes and that associate beauty with a specific body type.
  • Stress related to prejudice, discrimination, bullying, or other forms of harassment and abuse.

Eating disorders are very serious, often life-threatening. A person struggling with an eating disorder needs professional help; they can’t win this battle on their own. If you know someone you suspect may be struggling with an eating disorder, or if you have any questions about how to know for certain, please give us a call. We would love to help. Their life could depend on it.

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