A school of orange fish representing the idea that fish dont know their wet in the same way as we often dont realize what could be causing an eating disorder

How Do Eating Disorders Develop?

No one thing causes eating disorders to develop. It’s more like a perfect storm of genetics, biology, psychology, culture, and environment. Lots of factors merge together around the same time.

Genetics is one of many factors in how eating disorders develop

Genetics contribute for sure! In fact, they predispose individuals to eating disorders.

Eating disorders tend to run in families. And, the rate of eating disorders is higher in identical twins than in fraternal twins or other siblings.

Biochemistry is a factor in how eating disorders develop

Certain neurotransmitters, hormones, and other chemicals are out of range among people with eating disorders. The levels are either too high or too low. These chemicals in our body are what regulate appetite, stress, mood, and sleep.

Among cis-gender girls, early menarche (compared to peers) can be part of the perfect storm.

Psychology is too

Psychological factors contribute to eating disorders. People with an eating disorder often also struggle with depression and/or anxiety. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is particularly common, occurirng in 25% – 69% of women with anorexia . Other psychological factors include:

  • Poor self esteem
  • Feeling a sense of hopelessness
  • Perfectionism

Certain personality temperaments put a person at higher risk for an eating disorder. Traits like reward dependence, harm avoidance, sensation seeking, and obsessive-compulsiveness may be part of that perfect storm.

Culture is another contributor in how eating disorders develop

We live in Diet Culture. It is so pervasive and sneaky. In fact, we often don’t even realize how very much we’re impacted by its toxicity. It’s omnipresent. Ubiquitous. The lens through which we see ourselves and the world.

Dieting, body dissatisfaction and a drive to be thin increase the risk for an eating disorder. Diet Culture encourages all three.

Diet Culture is sneakily disguised as ‘a healthy lifestyle’, ‘clean eating’, or as a trendy way to eat. Like Whole30, Keto, or Noom.

If it has rigid rules to follow or involves arithmetic, it is probably a diet.

Diet Culture contrbutes to eating disorders in many ways:

  • An over-emphasis on appearance, at the expense of valuing inner qualities, like kindness
  • Societal standards that promote an unrealistically thin body shape
  • Associating thinness with positive qualities like attractiveness, health, success and love
  • Media’s focus on dieting and striving for a slim and toned body for women
  • Messages that perpetuate a fear of fat and food; viewing fat as undesirable or foods as “good,” “bad” or “sinful”

Intuitive Eating is such a better alternative, on all fronts. Its first of ten guiding principles is to ‘reject Diet Culture’. Mind you, the principles are not mandates. They are gentle steps. And, they’re associated with improved well being – physical and psychological. Unlike anything in Diet Culture!

Environment is important to understand in how eating disorders develop

Your environment also plays a role in how eating disorders develop.

For example, what was your home environment like? How did family members communicate feelings? Did family members diet? Were/are they weight conscious?

What kinds of extracurriculars did you participate in? How about the kind of friend group you were part of?

Aspects of an environment that may be relevant to how eating disorders develop:

Family conflict
Physical or sexual abuse history
Activities that focus on weight, such as gymnastics, dancing, running, wrestling
Peer pressure
Being bullied because of weight or appearance in general

You have agency over some factors associated with how an eating disorder develops. But not all. Fish do not know they are wet. In the same way that you may not realize the extent to which you are immersed in Diet Culture.

However, you do have agency over many aspects of recovery.

With support, you can emerge. And you will. Stronger than ever. And as a true power source.

You will be the fish that went to school (pun intended), recognizes Diet Culture, and knows your way out of the storm.

I am Dr Elayne Daniels, a MA based psychologist specializing in the treatment of eating disorders and negative body image. Contact me for more information.

Leave a Comment