google-site-verification: google5425b40e3588859b.html, pub-3038320404840626, DIRECT, f08c47fec0942fa0 The Origin of Eating Disorders
  • Sarah Rose

The Origin of Eating Disorders

My eating disorder has deep roots. Through years of therapy, I've pinpointed my first disordered behavior at age 10. That was 2003. It wasn't until 11 years later, in 2014, that I admitted to myself that I had an eating disorder. First, a silent relinquishing of control. Eventually, a verbal admission to a kind therapist who gave me a ball of silly putty to mash between my fingers as we spoke.

Over time, talking about my eating disorder became easier. Over time, writing about it became easier too, and then necessary. I know with great intimacy the darkness, destruction, loneliness, and sickness that comes with an eating disorder. I know too, that listening to others who came through that darkness brought me great hope. Those of us who suffered, or who still suffer, speak the same language. We've engaged in the same behaviors. We share the same pain.

But when I talk to other people, who have never battled this specific mental disease, they often cannot understand how or why we starve ourselves, binge, purge, destroy the very bodies in which we live. The most common question I receive is simply: How did it all start? When? And perhaps most illusory, why?

The origin of any eating disorder is not linear. It is not clear or easy to understand, even for those of us who suffer. Eating disorders are not, as many think, a privileged young white girl problem. They affect people of every age, race, socio-economic background, and gender. They kill more people each year than any other mental disorder-every 62 minutes, someone in America dies due to an eating disorder. Like most things, eating disorders don't have one root cause, so explaining how or why they plague so many people is difficult at best. Here, I will do my best to explain some of the ways people become trapped in an eating disorder.

Experts at The Centers For Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt identify seven main variables that influence eating disorders:

1. Genetics

Increasing numbers of family, twin, and adoption research studies show a strong correlation between genetic factors and eating disorders. People born with certain genotypes are at a heightened risk of developing an eating disorder, meaning that eating disorders are heritable. Individuals who have had a family member with an eating disorder are 7-12 times more likely to develop one themselves. Research regarding the causes of eating disorders is constantly evolving, and the genetic component is a newly researched phenomenon.

2. Temperament

Temperament is related to biology, genetics, and trauma. The causes of eating disorders are multi-faceted and interrelated. Some genes that have been identified to contribute to eating disorders are associated with specific personality traits that are thought to be highly heritable. These genes often exist before the eating disorder and can persist long after recovery. The existence of the following traits may predispose individuals to disordered eating: obsessive thinking, perfectionism, sensitivity to reward and punishment,  harm avoidance, neuroticism, impulsivity, rigidity, and excessive persistence.

3. Biology

Even in healthy individuals without eating disorders, states of semi-starvation have been shown to trigger obsessive behavior around food, depression, and anxiety.  In addition, people with eating disorders may have altered brain circutry that enable those with anorexia to suppress their appetite, those with binge eating disorder to overeat, and those with bulilmia to have problems with impulse control. Couple internal factors such as brain chemistry with external factors such as trauma, and it can be difficult for some to avoid developing an eating disorder.

4. Trauma

Traumatic events are often outside an individuals control, but can wreck havoc on their mental health. Traumatic events can vary widely-physical/sexual abuse, emotional manipulation, poverty, death of a loved one, and unstable households can all have lasting negative repercussions. Survivors of trauma often struggle with shame, guilt, body dissatisfaction and feeling of a lack of control.  The eating disorder may become the individual’s attempt to regain control or cope with these intense emotions. In some cases, the eating disorder is an expression of self-harm or misdirected self-punishment for the trauma.  As many as 50% of those with eating disorders may also be struggling with trauma disorders. 

5. Coping Skill Deficits

Behaviors such as restricting, purging, bingeing, and excessive exercise often develop in response to emotional pain, conflict, low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, stress, or trauma.  Those with eating disorders turn to destructive coping mechanisms because we lack more positive coping skills. Although these behaviors may seem destructive, they do afford individuals a certain sense of control or a numbing of negative feelings. Unlearning these negative coping mechanisms is often one of the most difficult steps of recovery.

6. Media/Environment

This one is a no-brainer. Our media espouses a certain thin-ideal that is physically impossible for most people to achieve. Our increased access to media has an extremely negative affect on mental health, and allows for a constant body dissatisfaction and comparison. In 1998, a researcher documented the response of adolescents in rural Fiji to the introduction of western television. This new media exposure resulted in significant preoccupations related to shape and weight, purging behavior to control weight, and negative body image. This landmark study illustrated a vulnerability to the images and values imported with media. The media and our environments do not overtly cause eating disorders, but they undoubtedly harm those who are already susceptible.

7. Dieting

Dieting is closely related to and influenced by the media and culture. It is also the single most common precipitating factor in the development of an eating disorder. The National Eating Disorders Association reports that 35% of “normal dieters” progress to pathological dieting and that 20-25% of those individuals develop eating disorders. Furthermore, Americans spend more than $60 billion every year on diets and weight-loss products, even though diets have a 95-98% failure rate.  For those who are genetically predisposed to eating disorders, dieting can be the catalyst for heightened obsessions about weight and food by intensifying feelings of guilt and shame around food. Despite diets being lauded as essential to health and happiness, dieting is strongly associated with higher rates of depression, disordered behaviors, and weight cycling (continually gaining and losing a significant amount of weight).

Eating disorders are complex illnesses with a genetic component that can be affected by a wide variety of biological and environmental variables. If you or someone you love is struggling with an eating disorder, contact the NEDA helpline at (800) 931-2237, find a treatment center or therapist near you HERE, or find an Eating Disorders Anonymous (EDA) meeting near you HERE.


Sarah Rose