Eating disorders are complex, and a mix of genetics, environment and social factors can lead to their development. While a family history of eating disorders does increase your risk, most people who have an eating disorder do not have a close relative with one or have no history of eating disorder in their families at all.
Individuals with an eating disorder often feel they have little control over the things that happen to them in life, and that food is their only way to gain some control. This may be why they become pre-occupied with their eating, even to the point of extreme restriction and starvation. The obsession with food is also a way for them to cope with pain or negative emotions.
Many people who have an eating disorder are at a high risk for other mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety. Trauma is a risk factor for an eating disorder, including sexual, physical and emotional abuse; bullying; a traumatic or abusive childhood or adolescence; and living with someone who has an eating disorder. Individuals who have experienced trauma are more likely to develop an eating disorder if unresolved feelings are not dealt with appropriately.
Studies show that social problems such as poverty, lack of education and inadequate housing can contribute to the development of an eating disorder. The research also shows that racial and ethnic minority groups have higher rates of an eating disorder. This may be due to cultural or environmental factors that cause them to have lower self-esteem, a low sense of belonging or a feeling of powerlessness.
There is a lot of pressure to be thin in our society. This is particularly true for women. Those who are in occupations where appearance is important, such as the fashion industry, models, actors and athletes, are at increased risk for an eating disorder. They may have pressure from their peers, coaches or trainers to be thin and to lose weight.
People who have an eating disorder tend to be perfectionists and are driven by the desire to achieve a certain image, even when this is unrealistic. This is especially common in adolescents. They may be influenced by peers who are obsessed with thinness and dieting behaviors, and by romantic partners who encourage them to lose weight.
People who have an eating disorder are at a higher risk for having other mental health issues such as depression, anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder. These issues may also be triggered by life changes, such as moving, changing jobs or the death of a loved one. Frequent dieting and starvation are also a risk factor for an eating disorder.