Why do people get eating disorders?
Eating disorders are complex illnesses, impacted by genetic, biological, psychological and socio-cultural factors.
Research is yet to identify a single ’cause’ explaining why some people develop an eating disorder. It is much more likely that some people have personal characteristics that make them vulnerable to developing an eating disorder and that the experience of specific life events then trigger the onset of illness. Once the illness is triggered, particular factors then come in to play, acting to maintain the disorder.
Extreme dieting is the biggest risk factor for developing an eating disorder.
Other well-documented risk factors include being female, 15 to 25 years old and living in a Western society. In addition, likely factors include:
- low self esteem
- perfectionist personality
- obsessive patterns of thinking/behaving
- genetic and familial issues (e.g. family history of eating disorder, mood disorder, substance abuse)
- traumatic childhood experiences (including abuse)
- exposure to intense competition (e.g. sport, academic)
- high levels of guilt, self-blame and shame
- high stress reactivity
- inability to talk about their needs or emotions
Eating disorder specific protective factors include:
- assertiveness skills
- positive self-esteem
- low-levels of competitiveness among peer group
- self-awareness and independence
- flexibility in thinking and approach to life
Eating disorders occur predominantly in Western cultures, where there is cultural and societal acceptance of the ‘thinness ideal’. This is reinforced by:
- societal and peer group pressure to diet, exercise and conform to a thin stereotype – expectations are often contradictory and unachieveable
- misinterpretation of obesity messages (fear of fat, stigmatisation of people who are overweight)
- media influences
- the belief that being thin/muscular equates with beauty, success and happiness
- the acceptance that a person’s worth can be judged on their appearance rather than who they are or what they do
There are some careers, hobbies and sports that place a person at high risk for the development of an eating disorder. Dancers (both male and female) are considered at high risk. Other careers, hobbies and sports associated with eating disorders include those:
- where low weight is a pre-requisite e.g. modelling, acting, or where ‘weight categories’ are specified regardless of height, such as boxing
- who are engaged in excessive exercise i.e. elite athletes, sports people and ‘gym junkies’
- who may have had a prolonged sub-clinical disorder from earlier life
- who use extreme weight control methods putting them at risk of dehydration, collapse and pre-renal failure e.g. jockeys, body builders