Eating Disorders Causes and Risk Factors

Written by Kimberly Holland | Published on November 26, 2014
Medically Reviewed by Brenda B. Spriggs, MD, MPH, FACP on November 26, 2014

What Causes Eating Disorders?

The exact cause of eating disorders is unknown. However, many doctors believe that a combination of genetic, physical, social, and psychological factors may contribute to the development of an eating disorder.

Genetic

Certain genes may increase a person’s susceptibility to developing an eating disorder. According to the Mayo Clinic, people with first-degree relatives who have an eating disorder are more likely to have one, too.

Brain Chemistry

Research suggests that serotonin may influence eating behaviors. Serotonin is a naturally-occurring brain chemical that helps regulate mood, learning, and sleep, among other things.

Psychological Health

People with an eating disorder may have an underlying psychological or mental health problem that may contribute to the disorder. These problems may include:

  • low self-esteem
  • obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • troubled relationships
  • impulsive behavior
  • anxiety

Society

Success and worth are often equated with physical beauty and a slim physique. This is especially true in Western culture. The desire to succeed or feel accepted may fuel behaviors associated with eating disorders.

What Risk Factors are Associated with Eating Disorders?

Certain genetic, social, and environmental factors may increase a person’s risk for developing an eating disorder. Some of these risk factors include the following:

  • Gender – Women are more likely than men to have an eating disorder.
  • Age – Eating disorders are most common during the teens and early twenties. However, they can occur at any age.
  • Family history – People with first-degree relatives who have an eating disorder are more likely to have an eating disorder themselves.
  • Dieting – Weight loss is often met with positive reinforcement. This need for affirmation may drive people to diet more severely, which can lead to an eating disorder.
  • Emotional disorders – People with depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder are more likely to experience an eating disorder.
  • Life transitions – Certain life changes and events can cause emotional distress and anxiety, which can make a person more susceptible to eating disorders. This is especially true if the person has struggled with an eating disorder in the past. These times of transition may include moving, changing jobs, the end of a relationship, or the death of a loved one. Abuse, sexual assault, and incest can also trigger an eating disorder.
  • Extracurricular activities – People who are a part of sports teams and artistic groups are at an increased risk. The same is true for any community that is driven by appearance as a symbol of social status. These groups include athletes, actors, dancers, models, and television personalities. Coaches, parents, and professionals in those areas may inadvertently contribute to eating disorders by encouraging weight loss.

Are Men Affected by Eating Disorders?

Women are more commonly affected by eating disorders, but men are not immune. In fact, according to a 2007 Harvard University study, one-quarter of Americans with anorexia or bulimia are male. The same study found that 40 percent of Americans with a binge-eating disorder are male.

Some men suffer from a condition called muscle dysmorphia, which describes an extreme desire to become more muscular. While most women with eating disorders wish to lose weight and be very thin, men with this disorder see themselves as too small and want to gain weight or increase muscle mass. Men with this type of disorder may engage in dangerous behaviors like steroid use, and may also use other types of drugs to increase muscle mass more quickly.

However, men are less likely to be diagnosed with an eating disorder, even when they exhibit very similar or the same symptoms as a woman.

The exact reason why men are less likely to be diagnosed with eating disorders is unknown. However, research published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services states that many young men with eating disorders don’t seek treatment because they are ashamed of having a stereotypically female disorder. The same study suggests that binge-eating disorders may go unnoticed in young men, perhaps because young men who overeat attract less attention than young women who exhibit the same behaviors.

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