How Do People Develop Eating Disorders?

eating disorders ED body issues health psychology of eating issues

This is a very difficult question to answer and many researchers and scientists are still learning so much about these complicated disorders. BUT we do know it is rarely about the food or wanting to be thin. What? Yes, that’s right, there are many misconceptions about what causes an eating disorder in our society and they really are caused by a combination of factors including genetic, psychological, biochemical, cultural, and environmental.

Eating disorders are complex and complicated and should be taken very seriously as they have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, according to the American Journal of Psychiatry. For example, one shocking statistic is that 20% of people suffering from anorexia will die prematurely from complications of their eating disorder, including suicide and heart problems! Yikes!

So, what can we do about that?

Let’s begin by stating what we do know right now. People with eating disorders tend to use food and the control of food to cope with overwhelming thoughts and feelings. For some individuals, dieting, bingeing, and purging may begin as a way to cope with painful emotions and to feel in control of one’s life without realizing the damage they are creating to their physical and emotional health. People just don’t choose to have an eating disorder and you can’t tell if someone has one just by looking at them so we need to look at specific factors that contribute to them.

Here are a few to be aware of:

  • Genetics – Eating disorders tend to run in families! There are also specific chromosomes that have been linked to anorexia and bulimia.
  • Psychological – Eating disorders are very common in individuals who struggle with clinical depression, anxiety disorders and obsessive-compulsive disorder. They also show up in people with low self-esteem, people who have difficulty regulating emotions, and perfectionists.
  • Biochemistry – People with eating disorders tend to have abnormal levels of chemicals that regulate appetite, mood, stress and sleep. There can also be an increase in serotonin that keeps these individuals in a constant state of stress.
  • Culture – Over-emphasis on appearance, unrealistic beauty standards, and extreme focus on dieting and exercise are all cultural factors that can contribute to eating disorders.
  • Environment – A person’s immediate environment can play a major role too. Having significant family or relationship problems, a history of physical or sexual abuse, a chaotic childhood, and bullying based on appearance all are contributors.

Eating disorders are complex and something to take very seriously. Once started, the disorder can create a self-perpetuating cycle of physical and mental destruction. Successful treatment of eating disorders requires professional help and a team approach for the best care. If you know someone struggling with an eating disorder, encourage him/her to seek treatment as soon a possible. Healing and recovery are achievable!


Deborah Mori has provided therapy for adolescents & adult women struggling with eating disorders and co-occurring mental health issues in a residential facility and private practice. She provides individual therapy for adolescents, adults, families, and couples for issues such as trauma, anxiety, depression, family/relationship conflict, and eating disorders. It is Deborah’s highest honor to “see” you with compassionate eyes and a kind heart to help you find your way to a thriving life.

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