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Eating Disorders: Causes and Risk Factors

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There are many theories about what causes eating disorders and for each person the reason can be different. However, most eating disorders are caused by a combination of biological, psychological, and environmental factors and sometimes the cause may not be completely clear.

Biological

  • A family history of anorexia, bulimia and/or binge eating disorder may make certain people more at risk to have an eating disorder because of their genes or family upbringing
  • Chemicals in the brain that control hunger, digestion, and appetite

Psychological

  • Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Past or current trauma such as physical, emotional, or sexual abuse
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Desire to have control over some aspect of life
  • Inability to control behaviors
  • Personality traits such as perfectionism (wanting to be perfect), extreme desire to succeed, and impulsivity (doing things without planning or considering the consequences)
  • Family values about body size, appearance and food
  • Low self-esteem or self-worth
  • Sense of loss

Environmental

  • Society’s intense focus on thinness and dieting
  • Participation in sports that focus on body shape and size such as dancing, rowing, gymnastics, track, wrestling, etc.
  • Abusive or troubled relationships that cause emotional stress and feelings of loss of control
  • Stress at school, sports, with peer groups, etc.
  • Specific cultural attitudes about how a woman/man should look and behave

You can’t tell whether a person is struggling with an eating disordered just by looking at them, but there are often warning signs. Warning signs or “red flags” might suggest that a young person may develop or already has an eating disorder. Below are lists of signs that are linked to certain types of eating disorders. A person who has an eating disorder may have one or more of these signs. These signs may also mean that a person has another kind of health condition, so it’s best to talk with a trusted adult about your concerns before jumping to any conclusions.

Red flags for Anorexia Nervosa:

  • Skips meals
  • Makes excuses not to eat
  • Over-exercises (makes exercise a top priority)
  • Eats only “safe” foods (low calorie, low-fat)
  • Doesn’t eat certain food groups (ex. carbs, fats)
  • Has unusual behaviors around food (organizing food, cutting food into small pieces, always finding something wrong with food, pushing food around the plate)
  • Cooks or bakes food for others but doesn’t eat it
  • Watches food shows or visits food websites constantly
  • Obsessively reads nutrition information or counts calories
  • Constantly weighs themselves, or “body checks” (looks at their body in the mirror or feels their body with their hands)
  • Chews a lot of gum or drinks large amounts of water, coffee, diet soda, or calorie-free beverages
  • Denies that there is a problem despite weight loss

Red flags for Bulimia Nervosa:

  • Uses the bathroom after eating or in the middle of meals
  • Consumes unusually large amounts of food at one time
  • Loses control around food
  • Has scars or calluses on hands and knuckles from using their finger to vomit
  • Hides food or empty wrappers
  • Diets often
  • Food may be missing from cabinets at home or disappears rapidly

Red flags for Binge Eating Disorder:

  • Frequently eats large amounts of food in one sitting
  • Loses control around food
  • Eats when not hungry
  • Eats alone
  • Eats as a way to control emotions
  • Hides food or empty wrappers
  • Others notice food disappearing rapidly
  • May hoard food

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