What Causes an Eating Disorder (and How Treatment Can Help)?

What causes an eating disorder?

Anyone can develop an eating disorder. You are susceptible no matter your race, gender, culture, or age. Nearly 29 million Americans have an eating disorder, with over 10,000 dying each year.

Eating disorders are mental health disorders that are treatable and can be overcome with the right help. When trying to understand why some people develop an eating disorder and some don’t, you quickly realize how complex the disorder can be. Two people can grow up in the same household, with the same parents, structure, rules, discipline, and more, yet one may have an eating disorder, and the other may not ever have a mental health diagnosis.

What Causes an Eating Disorder?

Researchers believe multiple risk factors contribute to someone developing an eating disorder. Someone may experience more than one risk factor at a time. If you or someone you love experiences one or more risk factors, it may be time to talk to a professional for help.

Here are the most common risk factors:

Another Mental Health Disorder

Mental health can be impacted by one or multiple disorders, known as co-occurring disorders. Some people have anxiety and depression. Some have substance use and bipolar disorders. Those with eating disorders may have other mental illnesses, such as low self-esteem, perfectionism, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder.

Social Stressors

Social stressors come in many forms, including peer pressure, bullying, job demands, academic responsibilities, and family expectations. Even volunteering for fun activities can feel overwhelming at times. For many who have low self-esteem, saying “no” to participating in activities is just as challenging as the eating disorder. You want to please everyone, which is impossible.

Body Image

Body image is established based on much more than how the media portrays the ideal man or woman. If you have been teased or criticized by others about your body or weight, you may develop an eating disorder. Rather than giving the critical statements any value, you may start repeating them in your mind, eventually believing them and feeling you must make changes, no matter how extreme.


The genes associated with mental health disorders are passed down through generations, just like other genes. Having the genes do not mean you are guaranteed to have an eating disorder. It simply means you have a risk of developing one.

Living Environment

Your home environment plays a role in your mental health. If you live in a chaotic environment, you may seek ways to feel more in control, like with an eating disorder.

If you live with others who have eating disorders or others who encourage eating disorders, your chances increase.


Depending on how extreme the diet is, you could lose more than weight. Starvation impacts the brain’s structure and changes moods. Starvation symptoms and eating disorder symptoms are similar. They are both indicators of malnourishment.

Examples of symptoms shared include lack of appetite, weak immune system, fatigue, weakness, often feeling cold, and depressed mood.

Significant Life Changes

Unexpected events happen to everyone. Some people have better coping skills than others. They can deal with their emotions and move forward. For some, however, coping is a challenge. One way to manage is by developing an eating disorder. It may give some people a sense of control, stability, and because it can change brain chemistry, it may offer a feeling of reward in the early stages. Positive feelings do not last long.

The more risk factors you have, the higher the chance of developing an eating disorder. The good news is that there is a way to counteract risk factors. You can establish protective factors.

Protective Factors

Protective factors are prevention tools that keep you safe from physical and psychological disorders. For example, not smoking cigarettes means you are less likely to develop lung cancer. Or avoiding alcohol or drug use makes it less likely to develop a substance use disorder.

Protective factors for eating disorders exist and can be built upon through eating disorder treatment.

Build a Support System

To overcome any issue, especially a mental illness, you need support from friends, family, counselors, teachers, and anyone else who can be there for you during the hard times. In treatment, you and your therapist can develop a positive support system list that fits your needs.

Learn Coping Skills

Until now, your coping skills include eating disorder behaviors. You must now learn positive coping skills to handle the ups and downs of life properly. Coping skills include problem-solving, communication, regulating emotions, relationship building, goal setting, and accessing resources for support.

Treat Other Issues

If you struggle with depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, or any other mental health conditions, you must be treated for them while you are treated for the eating disorder. They are interconnected, and if one is not appropriately treated, it could cause a relapse later.

Behavioral therapies are vital components of treatment. Your therapist may use any of the following:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy
  • Psychodynamic therapy
  • Motivational enhancement therapy
  • Trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy
  • Interpersonal psychotherapies
  • Dialectical behavioral therapy
  • Acceptance and commitment therapy
  • Family-based therapy

Medication has helped many people make a full recovery from mental health disorders. Your therapist can work closely with a psychiatrist to develop a treatment plan that includes medication. Antidepressants and antianxiety medications have many benefits and do not require life-long use to experience the rewards.

Medications can rebalance the brain’s chemistry so that you are no longer dependent on other methods, like an eating disorder, to feel good.

Understand the Body and Nourishment

When overcoming an eating disorder, a new way of eating may seem scary or confusing. You may worry about weight gain or being unable to stop eating once you stop. With treatment, your therapist can help you with these fears and more. They will teach how nutrients benefit your body. Healthy eating is a skill you can learn to identify when you have a preoccupation with eating, the signs of physical hunger, and how to set a regular eating pattern that keeps you healthy mentally and physically.

If you can benefit from treatment, call us. We can start building your protective factors against an eating disorder today.