Eating disorders are complex physical and psychological conditions with no single root cause. Instead, eating disorders usually develop due to a combination of genetic, biological, psychological and social risk factors.
Biological and Genetic Eating Disorder Risk Factors
While eating disorders occur in people of all ages, ethnic groups, genders and socioeconomic classes, certain biological traits are clear risk factors for eating disorders. Gender is the most significant of these; females are much more likely to develop eating disorders than males. Age also plays a role, as eating disorders are more common in adolescents and young adults.
Eating disorders also appear to have a genetic component. According to the Mayo Clinic (2010), individuals who have a parent or sibling with an eating disorder are more likely to develop an eating disorder than someone with no family history of these conditions. Researchers are currently trying to determine exactly how genes affect eating disorder causes.
Scientists are now discovering that certain biochemical features in the brain may influence the onset of eating disorders. For example, abnormal levels of serotonin, a chemical in the brain associated with anxiety and depression, hunger perceptions and impulse control, may be related to eating disorders.
Psychological Eating Disorder Risk Factors
Mental health conditions are common in people with eating disorders. While this exact relationship remains unclear, medical professionals believe the following are risk factors for eating disorders:
- Anxiety disorders
- Low self-esteem
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Substance abuse.
Although people with eating disorders are preoccupied with food and weight, there are often more significant psychological motives behind these behaviors. Controlling food intake may be a coping mechanism or an attempt to gain a sense of control over one’s life. Emotionally traumatic events, such as sexual abuse, are other risk factors for eating disorders.
Sociological Eating Disorder Risk Factors
Western culture upholds ultra thinness as the ideal body type. Most women don’t fit into this narrow category, but may feel pressured to lose weight to become thin. Actors, athletes, dancers and models are particularly at risk for eating disorders, due to the intense pressure to be thin in these fields.
Cyclical Nature of Eating Disorder Causes
Eating disorder causes and risk factors are numerous and varied. Once an eating disorder is set in motion, many of these causes become perpetuating factors that make it harder to break the eating disorder cycle.
Academy for Eating Disorders. (n.d.) Risk factors of eating disorders. Retrieved July 8, 2010, from http://www.aedweb.org/Risk_Factors.htm
Grice, D. E., Halmi, K. A., Fichter, M. M., Strober, M., Woodside, D. B., Treasure, J. T.,… & Berrettini, W. H. (2002). Evidence for a susceptibility gene for anorexia nervosa on chromosome 1. Retrieved July 8, 2010, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC384957/
Mayo Clinic. (2010). Eating disorders. Retrieved July 8, 2010, from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/eating-disorders/DS00294
National Eating Disorders Association. (2004). Factors that may contribute to eating disorders. Retrieved July 8, 2010, from http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/uploads/file/information-resources/Factors%20that%20may%20Contribute%20to%20Eating%20Disorders.pdf