Eating Disorders (Causes)

Researchers are unsure of the underlying causes and nature of eating disorders. Unlike a neurological disorder, which generally can be pinpointed to a specific lesion on the brain, an eating disorder likely involves abnormal activity distributed across brain systems. With increased recognition that mental disorders are brain disorders, more researchers are using tools from both modern neuroscience and modern psychology to better understand eating disorders. Additionally, eating disorders appear to run in families so research on genetic factors continues.

Other factors—psychological, interpersonal and social—can play roles in eating disorders. 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.

Interpersonal Factors include troubled family and personal relationships, difficulty expressing emotions and feelings, a history of being teased or ridiculed based on size or weight or a history of physical or sexual abuse. Social factors that can contribute include cultural pressures that glorify "thinness" and place value on obtaining the "perfect body", narrow societal definitions of beauty that include only women and men of specific body weights and shapes or cultural norms that value people on the basis of physical appearance and not inner qualities and strengths.

People with anorexia nervosa see themselves as overweight even though they are dangerously thin. In bulimia nervosa, despite sufferers usually weighing within the normal range for their age and height, like individuals with anorexia, they may fear gaining weight, desire to lose weight, and feel intensely dissatisfied with their bodies. Many with binge-eating disorders are overweight for their age and height. Feelings of self-disgust and shame associated with this illness can lead to bingeing again, creating a cycle of binge-eating.

Eating Disorders. Last reviewed 12/31/1969
  • American Psychiatric Association
  • National Institutes of Health
  • National Eating Disorders Association (2006)