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Causes of Eating Disorders

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Causes of Eating Disorders

Eating disorders can negatively impact your life, and even put your life at risk. Like any other abnormal behavior, psychologists aim to treat or reduce symptoms associated with eating disorders so people can live healthier, fuller lives. Eating disorders can be complex, which is why understanding how they come about can be integral to finding an appropriate treatment. Let's cover some of the most commonly known causes of eating disorders.

  • We will begin by explaining the causes and effects of eating disorders.
  • Then, we will dive into explanations for eating disorders.
  • As we move along, we will explain the genetic causes of eating disorders.
  • We will then break down the psychological causes of eating disorders.
  • To conclude, we will aim to understand the cultural causes of eating disorders.

Explanations for Eating Disorders

Now, let's start diving into some explanations for eating disorders. There may be several causes for eating disorders including:

  • Biological causes

  • Psychological causes

  • Genetic causes

  • Cultural causes

In later sections, we will go into more detail regarding the genetic, psychological, and cultural causes of eating disorders.

Brain Chemistry

Serotonin is one of the most important neurotransmitters that help regulate many different types of behaviors and characteristics. It should come as no surprise that any discrepancies in serotonin levels can be linked to several psychological disorders, including eating disorders.

While malnutrition can certainly change the amounts of serotonin in the brain, evidence suggests that abnormalities in serotonin receptors do in fact exist before a person develops an eating disorder. An anxious temperament is common among those who develop an eating disorder. Reduced serotonin levels may explain these anxious and obsessional behaviors.

Causes and Effects of Eating Disorders

Before we begin uncovering the many possible explanations of eating disorders, it is important for us to understand the relationship between the causes and effects of eating disorders. Since many people with an eating disorder do not see a professional until their disorder is full-blown, it can be difficult for psychologists to sort through what abnormalities associated with eating disorders are a cause or effect of eating disorders.

If someone with an eating disorder is depressed it can be difficult to determine if their depression caused their eating disorder or if their eating disorder caused their depression.

Researchers are constantly trying to sort out causal factors from factors that are simply the result of a person's eating habits and poor nutrition. Eating disorders can have a significant impact on a person's overall physical and mental health due to poor nutrition and stress that is placed on the body. In this article, we will uncover several neurological, genetic, psychological, and social causes of eating disorders. However, several of these causes could also be an effect of the eating disorder.

Issues in brain functioning cause certain people vulnerable to developing an eating disorder. People with an eating disorder may have unusually low activity in several key areas of the brain including the frontal lobe, amygdala, and parietal lobe.

On the other hand, extreme purging that occurs in anorexia and bulimia can cause changes in brain structure itself.

A loss in gray matter and white matter in the brain can be associated with anorexia.

When there are deficits in white matter, several parts of the brain may not be communicating with one another appropriately, which may explain why people with an eating disorder may experience intellectual deficits in understanding their disorder and thereby changing their behavior.

Comorbidity of Eating Disorders

Another concept to keep in mind when considering the causes and effects of eating disorders is comorbid disorders.

Comorbid disorders are psychological disorders that a present alongside another disorder.

We mentioned earlier that it might be difficult to determine if an eating disorder causes depression or if depression causes an eating disorder. However, sometimes, it could be neither. Comorbid disorders may not cause or be caused by eating disorders, they may simply exist for other reasons.

Causes of Eating Disorders, sad girl stting on floor in hallway, StudySmarterComorbidity of depression, Pikwizard.com

Common comorbid disorders to eating disorders include:

  • Bipolar disorder

  • Anxiety disorder

  • Major depressive disorder

  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder

Many people with anorexia nervosa experience an anxiety disorder or symptoms of anxiety before the development of their eating disorder.

Genetic Causes of Eating Disorders

Through twin studies, researchers have uncovered strong evidence that there are genetic causes of eating disorders. The heritability of anorexia is between 33% and 88% and the heritability of bulimia is between 28% and 83% (Rosenberg & Kosslyn, 2011). The wide range in heritability of eating disorders suggests a strong environmental interaction in the development of certain eating disorders. Your family environment, as well as your personal environment involving specific ways you are treated due to your genetic traits, can play a large role in whether or not you develop an eating disorder.

For many of us, our family members model body image, appearance, and eating habits that we often adopt as our own behaviors. Family members also affect our body image and concerns through their responses towards our weight, food intake, and body shape.

If your mom is constantly commenting on you not looking skinny enough, this can impact the likelihood of you developing an eating disorder.

Psychological Causes of Eating Disorders

As we take a look at the psychological causes of eating disorders, keep in mind that many of the factors that researchers focus on relating to symptoms of eating disorders involve food, appearance, weight, and eating. Many psychological causes of eating disorders involve one of these four factors. In this section, we will take a look at cognitive causes, behavioral causes, and personality risk factors of eating disorders.

Cognitive Causes of Eating Disorders

Cognitive perspectives in psychology often focus on how our thoughts affect how we feel and experience our world. Cognitive causes of eating disorders involve distorted thinking or views regarding a person's body or eating habits. For example, many people with eating disorders are excessively concerned with their weight, body shape, and eating. They may weigh themselves multiple times a day which leads to feelings of depression if they gain even just half a pound.

Dieting is one of the most common predictors of the onset of an eating disorder. A common occurrence while dieting is the last supper effect which suggests that people often eat in excess just before starting a diet. However, this can intern facilitate the binge and purge cycle common in eating disorders.

Additionally, many people with an eating disorder often have illogical, black-or-white thinking about food that is automatic. You may think vegetables are "good" and desserts are "bad" with no in-between. You may even go so far as to say that you are good if you eat vegetables and you're bad if you eat desserts. This type of thinking leads to a phenomenon called the abstinence violation effect.

The abstinence violation effect is when a person violates a self-imposed rule regarding food which leads to feeling out of control and eventually overeating.

This is the cycle that people with an eating disorder often find themselves in and can facilitate purging behaviors common in anorexia and bulimia.

You take a bite of your boyfriend's pizza. You immediately think "I shouldn't have had a single bite of pizza. The rest of the day is already blown, so I guess I might as well have a full slice. Or maybe even just half the pizza".

Causes of Eaeting Disorders, woman eating pizza near toilet, StudySmarterAbstinence violation effect, Freepik.com

Behavioral Causes of Eating Disorders

When a person is obsessed with their weight or what they eat or purging and binging, there is usually little room to worry about anything else. Finally, you have a distraction from pressures at work or with family. Your mind starts to believe you benefit from your eating disorder. Behavioral causes of eating disorders involve positive and negative reinforcement through operant conditioning.

  • Negative reinforcement: Being preoccupied with food is negatively reinforced because finally, you feel relief from the other distressing issues you would rather not think about. Purging is negatively reinforced as it reduces the anxiety you experience after binging or overeating.

  • Positive reinforcement: When a person engages in purging behaviors, they are positively reinforced when they regain a sense of control or power. Or, binging is positively reinforced because, although you feel a sense of guilt when you eat the forbidden food, that is also the only time you get to eat the foods you enjoy.

Personality Risk Factors of Eating Disorders

Finally, while personality may not cause an eating disorder, certain personality traits do put a person at risk for eating disorders. Let's take a look at a few personality risk factors for eating disorders:

  • Perfectionism: Many people with eating disorders have a high level of perfectionism and self-criticism. They are constantly aware of their imperfections and have a hard time facing them. This heightened awareness of one's flaws is also referred to as aversive self-awareness. Binging may reduce a person's anxiety regarding their imperfections.

  • Harm avoidance: People who exhibit harm avoidance do everything they can to avoid potentially harmful situations. They are organized and not spontaneous. Many people with eating disorders share this personality trait.

  • Low self-esteem: People with eating disorders often have low self-esteem and their obsession with their weight and food is a way to boost their self-esteem.

Cultural Causes of Eating Disorders

Culture plays a large role in all our lives. So we would expect there to be several cultural causes of eating disorders. Even the difference between Westernized cultures and other cultures plays a significant role in causing eating disorders. Studies show an increase in dieting among girls immigrating from China and Egypt to Western countries (Rosenberg & Kosslyn, 2011).

Native Americans are at the greatest risk of developing an eating disorder than any other ethnic group. Moving to a higher socioeconomic status, women and girls are more likely to develop an eating disorder.

Additionally, the media plays a large role in the way we view ourselves and understand societal standards of beauty and appearance. Cultural ideals of thinness can appear in television, magazines, movies, books, or advertisements and can increase a woman's dissatisfaction with her body, a risk factor for eating disorders. Studies show that adolescent girls are more likely to report disordered thinking the more time they spend watching tv (Harrison & Hefner, 2006).

Gender Norms and Eating Disorders

From a very young age, we begin to pick up on the gender norms in society. Western cultures tend to have higher expectations of appearance for women than for men. This can be explained using the objectification theory.

The objectification theory suggests that women learn to view their bodies as objects in Western culture.

Objectification usually begins before adulthood when girls hit puberty and may make certain women vulnerable to eating disorders. Women and girls are at greater risk of developing eating disorders than men and boys. However, this does not mean that men are never at risk for developing an eating disorder. Men who engage in activities that draw attention to weight and appearance such as wrestling or modeling may also be at risk of developing an eating disorder.

Causes of Eating Disorders - Key takeaways

  • There may be several causes for eating disorders including:
    • Biological causes

    • Psychological causes

    • Genetic causes

    • Cultural causes

  • Since many people with an eating disorder do not see a professional until their disorder is full-blown, it can be difficult for psychologists to sort through what abnormalities associated with eating disorders are a cause or effect of eating disorders.

  • Through twin studies, researchers have uncovered strong evidence that there are genetic causes of eating disorders. The heritability of anorexia is between 33% and 88% and the heritability of bulimia is between 28% and 83% (Rosenberg & Kosslyn, 2011).

  • Many of the psychological factors that researchers focus on relating to symptoms of eating disorders involve food, appearance, weight, and eating. Psychological causes include cognitive causes, behavioral causes, and personality risk factors of eating disorders.

  • The objectification theory suggests that women learn to view their bodies as objects in Western culture. Objectification usually begins before adulthood when girls hit puberty and may make certain women vulnerable to eating disorders.

Frequently Asked Questions about Causes of Eating Disorders

There may be several causes for eating disorders including: 

  • Biological causes 

  • Psychological causes 

  • Genetic causes 

  • Cultural causes

Since many people with an eating disorder do not see a professional until their disorder is full-blown, it can be difficult for psychologists to sort through what abnormalities associated with eating disorders are a cause or effect of eating disorders.


For example, if someone with an eating disorder is depressed it can be difficult to determine if their depression caused their eating disorder or if their eating disorder caused their depression. 

Biological causes of eating disorders include issues in serotonin levels and unusually low activity in several key areas of the brain including the frontal lobe, amygdala, and parietal lobe.

Sociologists may view eating disorders as the result of social norms and expectations of thinness and appearance. 

While depression may be a comorbid disorder, it may also cause an eating disorder. In this case, it may be best to focus treatment on reducing the depressive symptoms. 

Final Causes of Eating Disorders Quiz

Question

What is anorexia nervosa?

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Answer

The persistent fear of eating and gaining weight, often with a distorted perception of body weight or shape.

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Question

What is bulimia nervosa?

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Answer

Frequent episodes of binge-eating while feeling a lack of control over it.

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Question

What is binge eating?

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Answer

Binge eating is eating unusually large amounts of food, usually triggered by stress or an eating disorder.

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Question

What is ARFID?

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Answer

An avoidance or restriction of food intake

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Question

What does ARFID stand for?

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Answer

Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder

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Question

What is Pica?

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Answer

Regularly eating something that is nonnutritive or not food at all.

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Question

What is Renfield's syndrome?

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Answer

Clinical vampirism/hematophagia. Compulsively consuming blood.

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Question

What is rumination disorder?

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Answer

Repeatedly regurgitating food right after eating

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Question

Which eating disorders can cause tooth decay?

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Answer

Bulimia, rumination disorder, or any disorder that involves regurgitation.

Show question

Question

True/False: low self esteem can contribute to eating disorder behavior.

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

True/False: Eating disorders don't run in families.

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Answer

False

Show question

Question

True/False: obsessive thinking, perfectionism, and impulsivity are heritable and can contribute to eating disorder behavior.

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Answer

True

Show question

Question

True/False: "Thinspiration" or "thinspo" is not harmful.

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Answer

False

Show question

Question

True/False: beauty standards, especially on social media, encourage pro-anorexia behavior.

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

Fill in the blank: ________ is one of the most important neurotransmitters that help regulate many different types of behaviors and characteristics. 

Show answer

Answer

Serotonin 

Show question

Question

True or False: An anxious temperament is common among those who develop an eating disorder. 

Show answer

Answer

True 

Show question

Question

True or False: Comorbid disorders are psychological disorders that a present alongside another disorder.  

Show answer

Answer

True 

Show question

Question

True or False: A common occurrence while dieting is the last supper effect. 

Show answer

Answer

True 

Show question

Question

True or False: The last supper effect occurs when people eat in excess just before starting a diet.  

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

Fill in the blank: _______ is one of the most common predictors of the onset of an eating disorder. 

Show answer

Answer

Dieting 

Show question

Question

True or False: The abstinence violation effect is when a person violates a self-imposed rule regarding food which leads to feeling out of control and eventually overeating.  

Show answer

Answer

True 

Show question

Question

Fill in the blank: Many people with eating disorders have a high level of perfectionism and ___________. 

Show answer

Answer

self-criticism

Show question

Question

Fill in the blank: People who exhibit _________ __________ do everything they can to avoid potentially harmful situations. (2 words) 

Show answer

Answer

harm avoidance 

Show question

Question

Fill in the blank: Studies show that adolescent ________ are more likely to report disordered thinking the more time they spend watching tv (Harrison & Hefner, 2006).  

Show answer

Answer

girls 

Show question

Question

True or False: Eastern cultures tend to have higher expectations of appearance for women than for men.  

Show answer

Answer

False 

Show question

Question

True or False: The objectification theory suggests that women learn to view their bodies as objects in Western culture.  

Show answer

Answer

True 

Show question

Question

What type of studies did researchers use to gather the following evidence: The heritability of anorexia is between 33% and 88% and the heritability of bulimia is between 28% and 83% (Rosenberg & Kosslyn, 2011)?

Show answer

Answer

Twin Studies 

Show question

Question

True or False: Many of the psychological factors that researchers focus on relating to symptoms of eating disorders involve food, appearance, weight, and eating. 

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

True or False: Objectification usually begins before adulthood when girls hit puberty and may make certain women vulnerable to eating disorders.  

Show answer

Answer

True 

Show question

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