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What Causes Eating Disorders?

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There are many theories and no one simple answer that covers everyone. For any particular person, some or all of the following factors will be woven together to produce starving, stuffing, and purging.


Temperament seems to be, at least in part, genetically determined. Some personality types (obsessive-compulsive and sensitive-avoidant, for example) are more vulnerable to eating disorders than others. New research suggests that abnormal levels of brain chemicals predispose some people to anxiety, perfectionism, and obsessive-compulsive thoughts and behaviors. These people seem to have more than their share of eating disorders.

Also, once a person begins to starve, stuff, or purge, those behaviors in and of themselves can alter brain chemistry and prolong the disorder. For example, both under eating and overeating can activate brain chemicals that produce feelings of peace and euphoria, thus temporarily dispelling anxiety and depression. In fact some researchers believe that eating disordered folks may be using food to self-medicate painful feelings and distressing moods.

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People with eating disorders tend to be perfectionistic. They may have unrealistic expectations of themselves and others. In spite of their many achievements, they feel inadequate, defective, and worthless. In addition, they see the world as black and white, no shades of gray. Everything is either good or bad, a success or a failure, fat or thin. If fat is bad and thin is good, then thinner is better, and thinnest is best - even if thinnest is sixty-eight pounds in a hospital bed on life support.

Some people with eating disorders use the behaviors to avoid sexuality. Others use them to try to take control of themselves and their lives. They are strong, usually winning the power struggles they find themselves in, but inside they feel weak, powerless, victimized, defeated, and resentful.

People with eating disorders often lack a sense of identity. They try to define themselves by manufacturing a socially approved and admired exterior. They have answered the existential question, "Who am I?" by symbolically saying "I am, or I am trying to be, thin. Therefore, I matter."

People with eating disorders often are legitimately angry, but because they seek approval and fear criticism, they do not know how to express their anger in healthy ways. They turn it against themselves by starving or stuffing.

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Some people with eating disorders say they feel smothered in their families. Others feel abandoned, misunderstood, and alone. Parents who overvalue physical appearance can unwittingly contribute to an eating disorder. So can those who make critical comments, even in jest, about their children's bodies.

These families tend to be overprotective, rigid, and ineffective at solving conflict. Sometimes they are emotionally cold. There are often high expectations of achievement and success. The children learn not to disclose doubts, fears, anxieties, and imperfections. Instead they try to resolve their problems by manipulating weight and food.

In addition, research suggests that daughters of mothers with histories of eating disorders may be at higher risk of eating disorders themselves than are children of mothers with few food and weight issues.

According to a report published in the April 1999 issue of the International Journal of Eating Disorders, mothers who have anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder handle food issues and weight concerns differently than mothers who have never had eating disorders.

Patterns are observable even in infancy. They include odd feeding schedules, using food for rewards, punishments, comfort, or other non-nutritive purposes, and concerns about their daughters' weight.

Still to be determined is whether or not daughters of mothers with eating disorders will themselves become eating disordered when they reach adolescence.

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TV, movies, and magazines are three examples of media that flood people with messages about the "advantages" of being thin. Impressionable readers and viewers are told, sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly by the actors and models that are chosen for display, that goodness, success, power, approval, popularity, admiration, intelligence, friends, and romantic relationships all require physical beauty in general and thinness in particular.

The corollary is also promoted: People who are not thin and beautiful are represented as failures: bad, morally lax, weak, out of control, stupid, laughable, lonely, disapproved of, and rejected.

Girls and women are disproportionably affected by eating disorders and cultural demands for thinness. Never before in recorded history have females been exhorted to be as thin as is currently fashionable.

Men, by contrast, are encouraged to be strong and powerful. As they work to develop their power in the gym and workplace, they equate "thin" with "skinny" and "weak." Even though today's female models often look frail, wounded, and vulnerable (characteristics men abhor in themselves), female thinness is not rejected as "skinny." Instead is coveted and defined as glamorous, sexy, and evidence of the with-it woman. Perhaps this explains, at least in part, why only five to ten percent of people with eating disorders are male.

For a more detailed discussion of media influences on disordered eating, visit that topic on 's FAQs page.

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If people are vulnerable to eating disorders, sometimes all it takes to put the ball in motion is a trigger event that they do not know how to handle. A trigger could be something as seemingly innocuous as teasing or as devastating as rape or incest.

Triggers often involve the breakup of a valued relationship with its loss of personal connection and resulting loneliness.

Triggers often happen at times of transition where increased demands are made on people who already are unsure of their ability to meet expectations. Such triggers include starting a new school, beginning a new job, death, divorce, marriage, family problems, graduation into a chaotic, competitive world, and so forth.

Perhaps the most common trigger of disordered eating is dieting. It is a bit simplistic, but nonetheless true, to say that if there were no dieting, there would be no anorexia nervosa. Neither would there be the bulimia that people create when they diet, make themselves hungry, overeat in response to that hunger, and then, panicky about weight gain, vomit or otherwise purge to get rid of the calories.

Feeling guilty and perhaps horrified at what they have done, they swear to "be good." That usually means more dieting, which leads to more hunger, and so the cycle repeats again and again. It is axiomatic in eating disorders treatment programs that the best way to avoid a binge is to never, never allow oneself to become hungry.

This information is taken with permission from: ANRED logo

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