Eating disorders are complex, and there are often several contributing factors. Let’s explore some of the factors that commonly contribute to the development of an eating disorder.

Family History and Genetic Predisposition

The saying “genetics loads the gun and environment pulls the trigger” is used to describe the development of an eating disorder. This metaphor implies that someone may have a predisposition to an eating disorder, which is then triggered by environmental factors such as a traumatic experience. It’s not uncommon for there to be a family history of eating disorders, but even if that is the case, eating disorders are not solely caused by the genetic disposition of another person. This is something that I try to help people understand: eating disorders are complex, and often have more than one contributing factor that have helped the disorder progress.

Emotion Regulation and Control

Eating disorders are about much more than food. They often develop as a means of coping with difficult emotions, and food may be used to cope with emotions through behaviors such as binging, purging, or restricting. Each of these behaviors may help the person to cope with emotions in a different way. For example, someone may begin purging as a means of feeling a release from difficult emotions, whereas someone else may use binging to suppress emotions. Eating disorders may also develop as a means of wanting to feel in control. It is important to understand that although the goal is to feel in control, eating disorders often provide a false sense of it. They tend to create chaos in the lives of those affected. Part of the recovery process is learning how to cope with emotions using healthy skills rather than using eating disorder behaviors.

Dieting and Societal Pressure to be Thin

Dieting is a common risk factor that can lead to the development of an eating disorder. It often begins with a desire to “get healthy,” but if someone has a predisposition, it can lead to very problematic eating patterns. In conjunction with dieting is the societal pressure to be thin or obtain the “perfect body.” This desire to fit a particular mold, paired with other factors, can lead to an eating disorder. Restricting caloric intake in order to lose weight can lead to binging which may then lead to purging as a means of reducing guilt for binging. It’s a dangerous cycle that can be hard to break without the support of a treatment team.

Traumatic Experiences and Abuse

Unfortunately, I often hear from those suffering from an eating disorder that they have experienced some sort of traumatic event or form of abuse. The eating disorder may develop as a means to regain a sense of control that has been lost through the traumatic experience or, as mentioned above, a means of regulating difficult emotions that come up from the traumatic event. It may also develop as a means of manipulating the body to protect against future harm, or a means of self-punishment due to feelings of guilt and shame following the traumatic event.

Each individual will have different factors that have influenced the development of the eating disorder. Exploring the causes of the eating disorder is a crucial aspect of the recovery process because this creates the space to learn to cope with these factors. If you are suffering from an eating disorder, I encourage you to seek support from a therapist and to begin exploring with the therapist what has influenced the development of the eating disorder.


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