Eating disorders is arguably the most dangerous form of mental illness. The disease can affect people of every creed, race, ethnicity and age. However, the single specific factor which contributes to the manifestation of eating disorders is still unknown. Nevertheless, historical data and studies have narrowed down the factors somewhat – we know of the combination of factors which causes eating disorders.

1. Socio-cultural causes of eating disorders

Interestingly, culture plays a significant role in the onset of eating disorders. Cultures which demonstrate a preference for slim body types, common in most Western countries, have higher rates of such disorders. Conversely, cultures which equate high body mass with prosperity and fertility, have demonstrably lower rates of eating disorders. It is clear that societal expectations of beauty and fitness are creating psychological issues leading to eating disorders.

The internalisation of the Western beauty ideal - slender and buxomy for females, and lean and muscular for males – in other cultures has also contributed to body image issues in foreign cultures.

2. Biological and genetic causes of eating disorders

There is a growing body of evidence which demonstrates that eating disorders possess common genetic factors. For one thing, there is a link between family members and relatives who suffer from the disease. Moreover, there are shared commonalities between related patients involving genes responsible for biological systems such as metabolism, hedonic hotspots (pleasure centres) responses, size, appetite and mood. Co-occurring disorders such as alcohol or substance abuse are also usually seen between genetically related patients. Nevertheless, no assumptions can be made at this stage owing to scarcity of hard data - and because genetics is a fast evolving discipline of science.

Celiac diseases can lead to aversions to certain foods. Image courtesy of Danielle Helm

3. Psychological causes of eating disorders

Studies have identified several co-occurring disorders and personality traits which contribute to the manifestation of eating disorders. These psychological issues include:

  • Body dysmorphic disorder – patients view their physical appearance as severely flawed
  • Obsessive compulsive disorder – inability to be satisfied with any physical improvements attained
  • Low self-esteem – a systemic underappreciation of patients’ physical appearance, body shape, facial features or weight which compels them to seek extreme solutions to their imaginary issues

Often time, the co-occurring disorders will feed on themselves which will exacerbate the eating disorders, leading to a vicious cycle which will become progressively more extreme.

4. Other factors causing eating disorders

Other uncategorised factors which contribute to the development of eating disorders include

  • Abuse – Victims of child abuse and neglect are three times as likely to develop eating disorders
  • Abuse – Victims of child abuse and neglect are three times as likely to develop eating disorders
  • Peer pressure – Adolescents with no mental disorders and psychological compulsions may alter their eating habits due to peer pressure. Over time, they will be conditioned to unhealthy eating habits
  • It’s not all doom and gloom though; eating disorders are very treatable, especially for younger patients.