Eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa and bulimia, are complex illnesses that have many possible causes. Unfortunately, people often find it easy to blame eating disorders on overly simple explanations like the media’s promotion of unrealistically skinny models or poor parenting. In fact, most eating disorders arise from a combination of social and psychological factors that can range from mild to severe.
Most researchers agree that there are two main types of risk factors: mental health risks and body image-related risks. Mental health risks include anxiety, depression and low self-esteem. Experiencing a trauma such as childhood sexual abuse also increases a person’s likelihood of developing an eating disorder. Body image-related risk factors include obsession with weight and shape, perfectionism and a tendency to compare oneself to others.
Both risk factors are important, but no single factor is responsible for a person developing an eating disorder. A person who has a high genetic risk for an eating disorder may still be able to avoid the illness if he or she is raised in a loving, supportive environment. A person who is prone to anxiety, for example, may be able to control the risk by taking steps to reduce stress and develop healthy coping strategies.
Family dynamics, particularly the ways in which a person’s family interacts around weight and food, are often key to eating disorder development. Families may engage in unhealthy dieting behaviors or use fat shaming language or other forms of abuse. In addition, some families become enmeshed with their child’s eating disorder, leading to a sense of codependence and a lack of healthy boundaries.
Other environmental factors are related to the way that a person’s friends, colleagues and other relationships can affect eating disorder risk. Many adolescents experience weight-related teasing from peers, which can lead to feelings of distress and shame. This can prompt an individual to try to decrease his or her weight by starting a diet that snowballs into an eating disorder. People who work in professions that emphasize appearance, such as actors, dancers or athletes, can be especially vulnerable to the development of an eating disorder.
The good news is that while eating disorders can be difficult for the people who have them and those who care about them, they are very treatable. With the right support, most people recover from an eating disorder and are able to live healthy and fulfilling lives. To learn more about eating disorders, or to get help for yourself or a loved one, please visit The Western New York Comprehensive Care Center for Eating Disorders. Mary Tantillo, PhD, PMHCNS-BC, is director of the center and a professor at the University of Rochester School of Nursing. She is the author of several books on the topic of eating disorders, including “Feeding Yourself Well”. To see her latest book, please click here. Mary is also the co-host of the podcast Eating Disorders: The Untold Story. You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes or Stitcher.