There is no known direct line between a specific cause and an eating disorder. This is because many factors can influence how a person views food, what they deem an appropriate weight and what they are trying to get from the behavior.
That last part, the “what do I get” from an unhealthy behavior is a clue to how eating disorders are viewed by the professional therapy community. A common association in those with eating disorders is a feeling of loss of control elsewhere in their lives. The eating (or not eating) gives them an opportunity to take control over a well defined part of their lives when other areas aren’t going well or can’t be managed. Eating behaviors can then be a “safe haven” from the storms elsewhere.
Some of the areas being investigated as driving inappropriate eating behaviors are:
Feelings of loss of control, a low self esteem and combinations of anxiety, fear, depression, loneliness or of not being accepted. Relationships, both familial and interpersonal can lead to eating disorders, especially when a loved one is highly critical of weight. Anorexia has also been linked to a history of sexual abuse.
Because these conditions can run in families, scientists are hopeful an underlying biological change can be found that makes someone more susceptible to an eating disorder. When such causes are found, they become excellent targets for drug therapy and some of the chemicals that control hunger are already known. So far, experiments have not been promising, because it is unlikely that a single gene or defect will explain all of the types of eating disorders.
Unfortunately, some cultures instill the message into members that a certain weight or body style is ideal. In the case of the US, thin is good and thinner is better. It is hoped this can be changed by altering the messages we feed our young, and there is a movement to present a more rational weight as the norm. Associated with this is the notion that a person’s value can be judged by their body shape or weight. Patients with the condition may feel a very real pressure from society to conform to some standard of perfection and link it strongly to self worth.
While the underlying potential for an eating disorder may have a genetic basis, whether or not it is triggered and becomes an actual problem may have a lot to do with family influences. This is because the family members have a very large influence on behavior early on, when eating habits are being shaped. A positive environment can allow a child or adolescent to resist body image messages from society, while a negative input can drive someone toward an eating disorder.
Links to the development of eating disorders have been shown in relation to:
- History of physical or mental abuse (particularly in bulimia).
- Addictions or substance abuse
- Family history of emotional/mood disorders, particularly depression
- Parents or older siblings that stress weight issues and particularly a female parent who links weight loss with admiration and weight gain with approbation or disgust.