Help & Resources


What Causes Eating Disorders
Although the causes are many and varied, we know that people with eating disorders often use food and the control of food in an attempt to compensate for feelings and emotions that may otherwise seem overwhelming. For some, dieting, bingeing and purging may begin as a way to cope with painful emotions and a way to feel in control of one's life, but ultimately, these behaviors will damage a person's physical and emotional health, self-esteem and sense of competence and control.

Psychological factors that can contribute to eating disorders include:

  • Low self-esteem.
  • Feelings of inadequacy or lack of control in life.
  • Depression, anxiety, anger or loneliness.
  • A quest for perfection.

Interpersonal factors that can contribute to eating disorders include:

  • Troubled family and personal relationships.
  • Difficulty expressing emotions and feelings.
  • A history of being teased or ridiculed based on size, weight or appearance.
  • A history of physical or sexual abuse.
  • A history of being lauded based on size, weight or appearance.

Social factors that many feel may contribute to eating disorders include:

  • Cultural pressures that glorify thinness and place value on obtaining the "perfect body."
  • Narrow definitions of beauty that include only women and men of specific body weights and shapes.
  • Cultural norms that value people on the basis of physical appearance, and not inner qualities and strengths.

Scientists are still researching possible biochemical or biological causes of eating disorders. In some individuals with eating disorders, certain chemicals in the brain that control hunger, appetite and digestion have been found to be imbalanced. The exact meaning and implications of these imbalances remain under investigation.

Eating disorders are complex conditions that can arise from a variety of potential causes: physical, emotional, social and familial issues. Once started, they can create a self-perpetuating cycle of physical and emotional destruction. All eating disorders require professional help. All causes need to be addressed for effective prevention and treatment. The earlier an eating disorder is discovered and addressed, the better the chance for recovery.

The cultural context for eating disorders

1. Eating disorders are serious and complex problems. We need to be careful to avoid thinking of them in simplistic terms like, "anorexia is just a plea for attention" or "bulimia is just an addiction to food." Eating disorders arise from a variety of physical, emotional, social and family issues, all of which need to be addressed for effective prevention and treatment.

2. Eating disorders are not just a "woman's problem" or "something for girls." Males who are preoccupied with shape and weight can also develop eating disorders, as well as dangerous shape-control practices such as steroid use. In addition, males play an important role in prevention. The objectification and other forms of mistreatment of women by others contribute directly to three underlying features of an eating disorder: obsession with appearance, shame about one's body and low self esteem.

3. Whenever possible, educational programs for schools, community organizations and the like should be coordinated with opportunities for the participants to speak confidentially with a trained professional with expertise in the field of eating disorders and, when appropriate, receive referrals to sources of competent, specialized care.

Prevention efforts will fail, or worse, inadvertently encourage disordered eating, if they concentrate solely on warning the public about the signs, symptoms and dangers of eating disorders. Effective education programs must also address:

  • Our cultural obsession with slenderness as a physical, psychological and moral issue.
  • The roles of women and men in our society.
  • The development of an individual's self-esteem and self-respect in a variety of areas (school, work, community service, hobbies, creative activities, athletics, etc.) that transcend physical appearance.