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.

For instance, research suggests that serotonin may influence eating behaviors. Serotonin is a naturally-occurring brain chemical that regulates mood, learning, and sleep, as well as other functions.

Societal pressure can also contribute to eating disorders. Success and personal worth are often equated with physical beauty and a slim physique, especially in Western culture. The desire to succeed or feel accepted may fuel behaviors associated with eating disorders.

Eating disorders can take various forms, including:

  • overeating
  • undereating
  • purging

Each eating disorder has unique symptoms and behaviors that can help you recognize them.

Anorexia nervosa

Anorexia can be identified by unusually low weight and an intense desire not to gain weight or eat too much, if at all.

Anorexia is characterized by behavior meant to avoid gaining any weight at all, often to the point of malnourishment. With anorexia, a person may also see themselves as overweight, even if their body weight is far below normal.

Anorexia is most prevalent among young women. Up to 1 percent of women in the United States have anorexia, according to the National Eating Disorders Association. It’s much less common among men, who only make up 5-10 percent of people with anorexia.

Binge eating disorder (BED)

Binge eating disorder (or BED) occurs when you eat too much on a regular basis. You may also feel guilty about bingeing or feel like your bingeing is out of control.

With BED, you may continue eating long after you feel full, sometimes to the point of discomfort or nausea. BED can happen to people of all sizes and weights.

In the United States, BED affects more people than any other eating disorder, including 3.5 percent of women, 2 percent of men, and 1.6 percent of adolescents.

Bulimia nervosa

Bulimia occurs when you experience episodes of binge eating followed by purging. With bulimia, you may feel guilty or helpless after eating large amounts of food and try to vomit the food back up. You may use laxatives to quickly get the food through your digestive system. You might also exercise excessively to prevent the food from causing weight gain.

With bulimia, you may believe that you’re overweight even if your weight is normal, slightly above normal, or even below a healthy weight.

The prevalence of bulimia among young women in the United States is around 1-2 percent. This disorder is most common during the late teen years and early adulthood. Only 20 percent of people with bulimia are men.

Read more: 10 facts about bulimia »


Pica is a disorder in which you eat objects or other non-nutritious substances uncommon to your culture. Pica occurs over the course of at least one month, and the substances you eat may include:

  • dirt
  • cloth
  • hair
  • chalk
  • rocks

The prevalence of pica isn’t well known. But it appears more frequently in people with intellectual disabilities, such as autism spectrum disorder.

Rumination disorder

Rumination disorder occurs when you regurgitate food from your stomach frequently without having another medical or gastrointestinal condition. When you regurgitate the food, you may chew and swallow it again or spit it out.

The prevalence of rumination disorder is unknown. However, it seems to be more common among people with intellectual disabilities.

Symptoms vary with each disorder, but the most common symptoms include:

  • abnormally low or high body weight
  • an irregular diet
  • the desire to eat alone or secretly
  • using the bathroom frequently after a meal
  • obsession with losing or gaining weight quickly
  • obsession with physical appearance and perception of body by others
  • feelings of guilt and shame around eating habits
  • experiencing abnormal stress or discomfort about eating habits

Women are more likely than men to have eating disorders. Other genetic, social, and environmental factors that may increase your risk for developing an eating disorder include:

  • age
  • family history
  • excessive dieting
  • psychological health
  • life transitions
  • extracurricular activities


Although they can occur at any age, eating disorders are most common during the teens and early twenties.

Family history

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.

Excessive dieting

Weight loss is often met with positive reinforcement. The need for affirmation can drive you to diet more severely, which can lead to an eating disorder.

Psychological health

If you have an eating disorder, an underlying psychological or mental health problem may be contributing to it. These problems can include:

Life transitions

Certain life changes and events can cause emotional distress and anxiety, which can make you more susceptible to eating disorders. This is especially true if you’ve struggled with an eating disorder in the past. These times of transition can 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

If you’re part of sports teams or artistic groups, you’re at an increased risk. The same is true for members of any community that’s driven by appearance as a symbol of social status, including athletes, actors, dancers, models, and television personalities. Coaches, parents, and professionals in these areas may inadvertently contribute to eating disorders by encouraging weight loss.

Teenagers can be especially susceptible to eating disorders because of hormonal changes during puberty and social pressure to look attractive or thin. These changes are normal, and your teenager may only practice unhealthy eating habits every once in a while.

But if your teenager begins to obsess over their weight, appearance, or diet, or starts consistently eating too much or too little, they may be developing an eating disorder. Abnormal weight loss or weight gain may also be a sign of an eating disorder, especially if your teenager frequently makes negative comments about their body or perceived size.

If you suspect your teenager has an eating disorder, be open and honest about your concerns. If they’re comfortable talking with you, be understanding and listen to their concerns. Also have them see a doctor, counselor, or therapist to address the social or emotional issues that may be causing their disorder.

Women are affected by eating disorders more often, but men are not immune. Research also suggests that men with eating disorders are underdiagnosed and undertreated. They’re less likely to be diagnosed with an eating disorder, even when they exhibit similar (or even the same) symptoms as a woman.

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

Research suggests that many young men with eating disorders don’t seek treatment because they consider them stereotypically female disorders.

If you believe someone you know might have an eating disorder, talk to them about it. These conversations can be difficult because eating disorders can trigger negative emotions or make someone feel defensive about their eating habits. But listening to their concerns or showing that you care and understand can help encourage someone to seek help or treatment.

Treatment depends on the eating disorder, its cause, and your overall health. Your doctor may evaluate your nutritional intake, refer you to a mental health professional, or hospitalize you if your disorder has become life-threatening.

In some cases, psychotherapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or family therapy, can help address the social or emotional issues that may be causing your disorder.

There’s no medication that can fully treat an eating disorder. But some medications can help control symptoms of the anxiety or depressive disorder that may be causing or aggravating your eating disorder. These can include anti-anxiety medicines or antidepressants.

Reducing your stress through yoga, meditation, or other relaxation techniques can also help you control your eating disorder.

Read more: The best eating disorder apps of 2016 »