Eating disorders are a serious medical condition that affects people of all genders and ages. These conditions cause significant weight loss or failure to gain weight in childhood or adolescence, and can lead to heart problems, kidney disease and other health complications. Several risk factors can influence the development of eating disorders, including body dissatisfaction, poor dieting habits and negative body image. These factors can be the result of genetics, environment and social culture. However, some individuals are at higher risk for developing an eating disorder due to underlying psychological or emotional problems. These factors may include low self-esteem, perfectionism and troubled relationships.
The cause of an eating disorder varies from person to person. However, some researchers have found that certain individuals are more prone to developing an eating disorder than others. Compelling evidence from twin and family studies indicates a strong genetic component to the development of an eating disorder. This includes genes that regulate the balance of brain chemicals, such as serotonin.
Individuals who have a first-degree relative (like a parent or sibling) with an eating disorder are at greater risk for developing the disorder, as well. Having a history of dieting or other weight control efforts may also increase your risk, as can a family history of depression or bipolar disorder. A negative energy balance — burning more calories than you consume — is also associated with the development of some eating disorders, as is an obsession with food or exercise.
Appearance ideal internalization – believing that a particular appearance is important – is another risk factor for the development of an eating disorder, particularly in adolescent girls and women. This belief can lead to body dissatisfaction and disordered eating behaviors, as well as an increased desire to achieve a thin appearance. This pressure to meet a particular beauty standard can come from a variety of sources, including the media, family members and friends, and romantic partners.
Being teased or bullied about your weight can also contribute to the development of an eating disorder, especially if the bullying is consistent and persistent. This type of bullying has received a great deal of attention in recent years, and it is hoped that awareness of the impact of weight-shaming will help to prevent it in the future.
A history of abuse, such as physical or sexual abuse, is associated with an increased risk for developing an eating disorder. This type of abuse can leave lasting scars, including on a person’s body, self-image and emotions.
A study that surveyed people with and without an eating disorder to assess their beliefs about the causes of eating disorders found that the people with an eating disorder most often endorsed psychological/emotional and family problems, while those without an eating disorder more frequently endorsed genetics/biology, media/culture and body image and eating issues. These findings support the need for a more thorough education about the complex causes of these disorders. This knowledge will help to support opportunistic screening and sensitivity to the many factors that may be contributing to an individual’s susceptibility to develop an eating disorder.