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Why Do Eating Disorders Happen?

Eating disorders like anorexia, bulimia and binge eating, are complicated illnesses that can be devastating when left untreated. There are many misconceptions about what causes eating disorders. These issues are rarely actually about food or wanting to be thin. People who suffer from eating disorders use food and unhealthy behaviors like dieting, starving, binging and purging to cope with overwhelming emotions, negative experiences and stressful situations.

If you or someone love suffers from an eating disorder you need to understand that it is an illness. It’s not a character flaw or a choice. People cannot choose to have an eating disorder. You also cannot tell whether a person has an eating disorder based solely on their appearance. People with eating disorders can be underweight, normal weight or overweight.

The causes behind an eating disorder come from a combination of genetic, biochemical, psychological, cultural and environmental factors. Here is an explanation of these factors:


Genetics may predispose individuals to eating disorders. Researchers have found that eating disorders tend to run in families. There are also appears to be higher rates of eating disorders in identical twins than in fraternal twins or other siblings. Specific chromosomes have actually been linked to both bulimia and anorexia.


People with eating disorders may have abnormal levels of certain chemicals that regulate processes like appetite, mood, sleep and stress. Both people with bulimia and anorexia have higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Research has also suggested that individuals with anorexia have an excess of serotonin, keeping them in a constant state of stress.


Various psychological factors can contribute to eating disorders. They are common in individuals who struggle with clinical depression, anxiety disorders and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Other psychological factors include:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Feelings of hopelessness and inadequacy
  • Trouble coping with or expressing emotions
  • Perfectionism
  • Impulsivity


Dieting, body dissatisfaction and the desire to be thin are all factors that increase the risk for an eating disorder. Unfortunately, Western society encourages all three. You can’t go anywhere without seeing super thin models, tips for dieting or rapid weight loss regimes.

Our modern culture contributes to eating disorders in the following ways:

  • An over-emphasis on appearance, even at the expense of more meaningful attributes
  • Societal beauty standards that promote unrealistic body types
  • Associating thinness with positive qualities like happiness, attractiveness, health and success
  • The media’s focus on dieting and striving for a slim, toned body
  • Messages that perpetuate the word “fat” and eating indulgent food as bad or sinful


Your environment can also significantly influence the possibility of developing an eating disorder. Eating disorders are often triggered by these environmental factors:

  • Family or other relationship problems
  • Difficult childhood
  • History of physical or sexual abuse
  • Activities that encourage thinness or a focus on weight, such as dancing, acting, running, modeling or wrestling
  • Peer pressure
  • Being bullied because of weight or appearance

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