What Causes an Eating Disorder?

Category: Eating Disorders
9 minute read.

To understand what causes an eating disorder, it is essential to know the common symptoms of disordered eating and how to recognize a potential problem before it leads to a medical or mental health emergency. Eating disorders are real illnesses. Despite the opinions of some, they are not merely something that is “in the head” of the person who is suffering. Eating disorders do not manifest and exert their control by choosing the individual who struggles with eating challenges. The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, or ANAD, provides annual reports of disordered eating statistics. The following are just a few notable statistics about various eating disorders and their prevalence across the nation.

  • In the United States, at least 30 million people of all ages and genders suffer from an eating disorder.
  • Every 62 minutes, at least one person dies due to an eating disorder.
  • Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.
  • In a large national study of college students, 3.5% of sexual minority women and 2.1% of sexual minority men reported having an eating disorder.
  • 16% of transgender college students reported having an eating disorder.
  • Eating disorders affect all races and ethnic groups.
  • Genetics, environmental factors, and personality traits all create an increased risk for an eating disorder.

The statistics speak for themselves in terms of the severity of this epidemic. Eating disorders are not biased. They can (and do) affect people of all demographics, including age, sexual orientation, race, or gender identity. The safest and most effective way to overcome an eating disorder is to seek help at a treatment center like Los Angeles Outpatient Center as soon as you recognize a concern.

What are the Common Eating Disorders?

There are various diagnosable eating disorders as listed by the National Eating Disorders Association. Some are certainly more well-known than others but may share common symptoms. First, we will go over some of the more common eating disorders and then address the signs to watch for. Finally, we will discuss how to begin the process of seeking treatment.

Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia nervosa or anorexia, as it is more commonly called, is an eating disorder characterized by weight loss (or, in growing children, improper weight gain); difficulties maintaining appropriate body weight for height, age, and stature; and in many cases, distorted body image. People with anorexia will often restrict the number of calories they eat or the types of food they eat to control what they see as unacceptable weight gain. Some individuals will also exercise compulsively or abuse laxatives to further their weight loss.

There are very specific diagnostic criteria for anorexia, which your medical provider would need to address to determine if the symptoms of disordered eating being displayed by your child or teen are indeed attributable to this illness. However, it is essential to note that even if the criteria for anorexia are not met, a severe eating disorder could be present, which could negatively impact the health of your child.

Bulimia Nervosa

Bulimia is a potentially life-threatening eating disorder that is characterized by a continual cycle of binge eating and purging. Purging is a compensatory behavior such as self-induced vomiting or induction of bowel movements, which are designed to “undo” the effects of the period of binge eating. As with anorexia, there are specific diagnostic criteria. The long-term effects of bulimia can affect the entire digestive system and lead to chemical imbalances in the body that can impact the heart and other major organs

Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake (ARFID)

ARFID is similar to anorexia in that both conditions involve self-imposed limitations on the amount or types of food consumed. The condition was previously referred to as a selective eating disorder. ARFID differs from anorexia because ARFID does not involve psychological distress about body shape, size, or “being fat.”  Children and teens with ARFID are generally more than your typical picky eater, as they do not consume enough calories to grow and develop properly. 

Binge Eating Disorder

Research suggests that binge eating disorder is one of America’s most common eating disorders. The symptoms of binge eating disorder often present during adolescence and early adulthood. Someone who struggles with binge eating disorder will exhibit signs and symptoms similar to those of someone with bulimia. They usually eat abnormally large amounts of food over a very short period of time. Another common struggle for someone with a binge eating disorder is that they cannot control how quickly or how much they eat when binging. Unlike bulimia, however, someone with a binge eating disorder does not use behaviors like vomiting, purging, or other calorie restricting behaviors to compensate for the amount of caloric intake during a binge.


Pica is an eating disorder that is not as commonly known as the first three. Pica is an eating disorder that involves eating things that are not widely thought of as food items and do not contain a specific nutritional value, such as hair, dirt, paper, and paint chips. The signs and symptoms of pica are a little different than some of the more common eating disorders. Pica often occurs in conjunction with other mental health disorders associated with impaired functionality. Additionally, malnutrition and iron deficiency anemia are two of the most common causes of pica.

What Causes an Eating Disorder?

Unfortunately, despite decades of research, the exact cause of eating disorders remains unknown. However, like many other mental health diagnoses, a combination of genetics and underlying psychological and emotional health challenges are believed to contribute to an increased risk for developing an eating disorder. Also, environmental factors and social factors may create an elevated risk.

Genetics and biology are believed to be among the most substantial contributing factors to eating disorder development. Scientists have found there are specific genes that may lead to increased eating disorder risk. Also, specific biological factors, especially changes in the level of particular chemicals in the brain, may contribute as well.

Social and environmental factors are another challenge. People who have particular emotional and psychological challenges such as reduced self-esteem, impulsive behaviors, complicated relationships, and a drive for perfectionism may see disordered eating as an outlet to manage the struggles caused by these emotions. Some teens and young adults may also turn to disordered eating as a way to manage societal and peer appearance expectations.

Disordered eating is statistically more common among girls than boys; however, this does not suggest males do not experience challenges with disordered eating. Someone with a family history of eating disorders is at an increased risk for developing an eating disorder in their lifetime. Other mental health conditions like depression, anxiety disorders, or obsessive-compulsive disorder also increase eating disorder risk.

Some research suggests many symptoms common to eating disorders might be linked to starvation. This is because when someone diets (or restricts calories) to the point of starvation, it changes the function of the brain. For someone vulnerable to self-image or self-esteem, restrictive eating behaviors may increase, making it challenging to resume “normal” and healthy eating without the help of a professional treatment center like The Los Angeles Outpatient Center.

Seeking Treatment for Eating Disorders

If you or a loved one struggles with disordered eating, it is vital to seek help right away. Eating disorders can quickly evolve into potentially dangerous medical situations that require emergency intervention to keep the individual safe. It is not uncommon for the first step in many eating disorder treatment plans to include medical intervention. This step is often necessary to help the person gain strength and allow time for their body to recover from vitamin and nutrition deficiencies. Depending on the severity of the individual’s situation, it may take days, weeks, or even months for the body and its vital systems to recover sufficiently to leave a medically supported environment.

The best treatment program will depend on the eating disorder diagnosis. In most cases, however, eating disorder treatment programs involve a team of skilled treatment professionals. For example, your treatment team at The Los Angeles Outpatient Center may include dieticians, mental health professionals, and the inclusion of your primary care provider. Your treatment program will consist of therapies, medications, nutrition education, and education about lifestyle modifications that will benefit you after treatment ends.

Eating disorders are not problems that resolve on their own. It is vital to seek help to learn how to address and manage the emotional challenges that lie at the root of potentially harmful behaviors. This is accomplished through therapy. The most effective form of treatment for disordered eating is psychotherapy. Psychotherapy or talk therapy helps participants learn safer and more effective ways to manage their symptoms. Participants learn how to monitor their emotions and habits, develop healthy coping skills and explore safer ways to manage the stressors that lead to harmful eating habits.

Some programs may include medications. It is important to note that medications cannot “cure” an eating disorder; however, some medications may help control the urge to binge eat or purge after eating. Common examples of drugs used as part of an eating disorder treatment plan may include anti-anxiety and antidepressant medications. These drugs can help manage the sometimes overwhelming symptoms of anxiety and depression that are often associated with eating disorders.

Overcoming an eating disorder is not an easy process. For many, the journey to lasting health and wellness is a journey that will last for many years. Seeking help at a specialized treatment program like The Los Angeles Outpatient Center is the safest and most effective way to learn how to manage and overcome your symptoms. To learn more about our programs and how they can help you or a loved one, contact our admissions team today. Let us help you start on the road to a healthy relationship with food.