What causes Eating Disorders?

There is no single cause for any eating disorder. All eating disorders are a perfect storm of complex variables. There is, however, constant pressure to achieve unrealistic and unhealthy body conditions brought on by the media and pop culture. This pressure adds to the other factors that may influence disordered eating. Here are a few other influencers.

What causes Eating Disorders?


While dieting may seem harmless, statistics show that girls who diet before the age of 14 are eight times more likely to develop an Eating Disorder. Dieting disrupts normal eating patterns and can start a cycle of unhealthy eating. 50% of adolescent females report dieting before the age of 14.

Media Influence

The current message from movies, television, billboards, popular music, and magazines is that thin is “in”, regardless of the cost. Media images equate thinness with beauty, peer acceptance, success, self-esteem, morality, and health.

Peer Pressure

In an attempt to fit in, individuals may feel they need to change their physical appearance, even to the extent of significant weight loss. Within peer groups, dieting or other Eating Disorder specific behaviosr can become competitive.


Trauma can occur in one significant event or repeatedly over a period of years. Sexual abuse, rape, the death of a loved one, divorce, changing schools, or moving are all serious life events that could trigger an Eating Disorder.


High performers in athletics are academics often believe their worth is found in what they do and how they perform. Image can be very important and fuel an Eating Disorder.

Athletic Achievement

Certain competitive sports may lead to the development of an Eating Disorder. For example:

  • Gymnastics or dance participation may be dependent on a certain body type or “look”.
  • Sports like cross-country may be a convenient outlet for an individual to over-exercise in an “acceptable” fashion.
  • Wrestling often mandates “making weight” in order to wrestle at a certain weight-class.
  • Life Transitions

Times of transition can lead to emotional stress. Puberty is one of those transitions; another often occurs at ages 18-20. Fear of physical development, which naturally brings curves to the female body, can lead to extreme dieting.

Eating Disorders and Negative Body Image

Eating disorders and negative body image affect thousands of men and women as children and adults. It’s a myth that only girls who are on the verge of starving to death struggle with an eating disorder or body image problems.

The truth is many normal people suffer from painful dissatisfaction with their bodies and the way others perceive them. The media and popular culture have established an unhealthy and unrealistic definition for beauty that is deeply wounding and alienating.

Types of Body Image and Eating Disorder Problems

Negative Body Image

A persistent critical appraisal of ones body and the habitual comparing of one’s self to others. Feelings of contempt, shame, dissatisfaction, and/or disgust with one’s body.

Binge Eating

Compulsive over-eating, eating to sooth negative emotions, or rapidly consuming thousands of calories in a short time, without purging.


Starving one’s self or restricting calorie intake out of fear of becoming fat. Often includes over-exercising.


A destructive pattern of binging on food followed by “purging” of calories through over-exercising, vomiting, or the use of laxatives.

Emotional Eating

Eating to soothe emotions such as anger, fear, anxiety, loneliness, and depression; without purging.

Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS)

Characterized by having some, but not all, of the symptoms of anorexia or bulimia.

Often eating disorders begin with negative body image. Strong dissatisfaction with one’s body or life then causes a person to begin either eating excessively, severely restricting calories or cycling from eating in excess to taking extreme measures to rid oneself of calories. It can start as just “wanting to lose a few pounds” or “wanting to be more healthy” but soon it becomes an unhealthy obsession. Food becomes the enemy; the battle for control is intense and consuming.

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