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 at 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 the 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 plays a role, too.

Psychological factors contribute to how eating disorders develop. People with an eating disorder often also struggle with depression and/or anxiety. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is particularly common, occurring 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, and sensation-seeking may be part of that perfect storm. Obsessive-compulsiveness too.

Culture is another contributor.

We live in Diet Culture. It’s 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 a trendy way to eat (like Whole30, Keto, or Noom).

If it has rigid rules or involves math, it’s probably a diet.

Diet Culture contributes to how eating disorders develop 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 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’re gentle steps, associated with improved physical and psychological well-being. And unlike anything in Diet Culture!

Environment is an important factor 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 extracurricular activities 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 eating disorders develop, but not all.

In the same way that fish don’t know they’re wet, you may not realize the extent to which you’re 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 treating people with eating disorders and negative body image. Join me in ditching Diet Culture! Contact me here for more information.

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