Eating disorders do not have a single, identifiable cause. There are psychological, physiological and social risk factors that may increase the likelihood of an eating disorder developing, as well as behaviours and traits that can be changed.
- Low self-esteem
- Feelings of inadequacy
- Depression or anxiety
- A belief that love from family & friends is dependent on high achievement
- Difficulty expressing emotions and feelings, particularly negative emotions such as anger, sadness, anxiety or fear
- Ineffective coping strategies
- Fear or avoidance of conflict
- Impulsive or obsessive behaviours
- Highly concerned with the opinions of others, often with a need to please
- Prone to extremes, such as ‘black and white’ thinking
- Cultural value placed on thinness as an inextricable part of beauty
- Current cultural emphasis on the goal to strive for a ‘perfect’ body
- Valuing of people according to outward appearance and not inner qualities
- Media and popular culture’s unrealistic portrayal of people’s shapes and bodies
- Pressure to achieve and succeed
- Professions with an emphasis on body shape and size (eg. dancers, models, athletes)
Scientists are currently researching possible biochemical and biological factors and their role in the development of eating disorders. Research has indicated that in some people with eating disorders, there is an imbalance of certain chemicals in the brain.
Genetic or familial factors, for example a person who is exposed to a parent or sibling with an eating disorder, is at a higher risk of developing an eating disorder themselves. While no conclusive outcome has been reached, research has provided evidence that in some cases this is due to genetic predisposition, rather than learned behaviour.
- Life events, particularly those involving major changes (e.g. loss of a family member or friend, the divorce or separation of parents, moving schools or jobs)
- Peer pressure
- Inability to effectively deal with stress
- Personal or family history of obesity, depression, substance abuse or eating disorders
- Troubled personal or family relationships
- Sexual or physical abuse
- History of teasing or bullying, particularly when based on weight or shape
Behaviours and traits
Weight-loss and fad diets involve restricting food intake to levels that often leave a person constantly hungry and in some cases, lacking the necessary nutrients they need to maintain physical health and energy levels. The restrictive nature of dieting does not work, as fad diets do not provide a sustainable meal plan for the long term. In fact, 95% of people who diet regain the weight and more within two years.
While self-esteem and body image are linked, self-esteem represents a person’s perception of their internal and external faculties as a whole — an all-inclusive sense of self-worth. Low self-esteem is a central theme in the development of an eating disorder, and it often manifests as a critical voice that creates and feeds perceptions of poor body image. Low self-esteem naturally leads to negative perceptions of one’s physical appearance. A person’s distorted body image is reconciled only when internal issues with low self-esteem are corrected.
Perfectionism goes beyond setting personal goals and doing your best. People with perfectionist traits set extremely high standards that are unrealistic, and feel distressed when they fail to meet these impossible standards. They mistakenly believe that if they can meet these high standards, they will have a sense of control and be ‘worthwhile’ and ‘successful’. They may strive for perfection in their academic or work performance, morality, relationships, cleanliness and order, or dieting, exercise, body weight or shape. Perfectionism is a common personality trait in people with an eating disorder, who may feel the need to maintain complete control over their weight.
Body image refers to how a person perceives, thinks and feels about their body and appearance. These thoughts and feelings can be positive, negative, or a combination of both. A person’s body image can change over time, and can be strongly influenced by what a person reads, sees and hears. People’s psychological perceptions of their bodies are not always accurate, and this can affect what they see. For example, some people may believe their body is larger or fatter than it actually is, or become fixated on a particular body part and start to see it as being very unattractive. When people feel dissatisfied about their body, this can affect their behaviour; for example, someone who thinks they are overweight may choose not to exercise in public.