Common Causes of Eating Disorders


Many people are under the misconception that eating disorders are lifestyle choices, when in fact they are a serious mental illness. As such, they are unlikely to be resolved without treatment.

Causes of Eating Disorders

As with other types of illness, such as addiction, the causes of eating disorders are not fully understood. Most eating disorder specialists find that a combination of emotional, psychological and environmental/social issues are the root cause. Genetics also play a part.

The types of environmental factors that tend to contribute to eating disorders are often related to public perception of an ideal figure, especially among women. Many people associate successful females with being thin. The almost exclusive use of thin women in media reinforces this idea. Consequently, women can feel immense pressure to control their weight. Unfortunately, many of them have an exaggerated perception of just how heavy they are that is matched with an equally misguided perception of what their ideal weight should be, leading to a distorted body image.

While the causes of eating disorders can be complex and diverse, there are certain risk factors. Eating disorders are more common in females than in males. While they can occur at any age, they are most likely to develop during the teens or early adulthood. Of people who have eating disorders, 95 percent are between the ages of 12 and 25.1 People who may have another underlying mental disorder, like depression or anxiety, are at greater risk of developing an eating disorder.

Control Paradox

common causes of eating disorders

People with anorexia in particular often develop the eating disorder—in which they essentially lose control of their eating habits—because their ability to decide what and when to eat gives them a sense of control. A significant percentage of people with anorexia nervosa describe that they felt their lives were spiraling out of control and that maintaining rigid control over their diet made them feel they were regaining control.

However, this level of control becomes an obsession and leads to dangerous eating habits. Many people with anorexia have a very distorted self-image of how heavy they appear. While their friends or family can see that they are malnourished, people with anorexia often feel overweight. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, anorexia nervosa has the highest fatality rate of any mental illness. 2


Each individual will have a unique set of circumstances that has led to the eating disorder. It is important for people who suffer from such disorders to get high-quality, professional therapy to help them explore the factors that led to the development of the illness. When they are able to analyze the issues that are contributing to their illness, a treatment plan can be built to help them heal.

Therapy is at the core of treatment for eating disorders. Most people will be able to get on the road to recovery by attending therapy as an outpatient. The best treatment programs offer a combination of individual, group and family therapy. Studies have shown that family therapy greatly increases the effectiveness of treatment programs.3

In some cases, it may be essential for people with eating disorders to be hospitalized if they are suffering from advanced malnutrition. These people will be able to attend therapy sessions when their physical health has been stabilized.