Causes of Eating Disorders

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No single cause has been identified for eating disorders. However, nearly all eating disorders begin with dieting to lose weight. Because these disorders are found almost exclusively in the developed world, where food is plentiful and where thinness in women is idealized, it appears that social and cultural

Anorexia nervosa is a body-image disorder in which fear of being fat results in undereating and other behaviors that lead to emaciation and, if unchecked, death. (Hans & Cassidy, Inc.)

Anorexia nervosa is a body-image disorder in which fear of being fat results in undereating and other behaviors that lead to emaciation and, if unchecked, death. (Hans & Cassidy, Inc.)

factors are important contributors. Some theorists believe that cultural values of independence and personal autonomy, rather than interdependence and the importance of human relationships, contribute to eating pathology. Still others point to the changing and contradictory societal expectations about the roles of women as a contributing factor.

Studies suggest a genetic predisposition to eating disorders, particularly in those persons who engage in binge eating and purging behaviors. Their family histories typically include higher than expected numbers of persons with mood disorders and substance abuse problems. Dysfunctions in the pathways for the substances that transmit messages in the brain, the neuro-transmitters, are thought to play a role in the development and maintenance of eating disorders, although these dysfunctions are not sufficient to explain the entire problem by themselves. The psychological theories about the causes of eating disorders postulate that individuals with underlying feelings of powerlessness or personal inadequacy attempt to cope by becoming preoccupied with their body's shape and size. Finally, the incidence of sexual abuse is higher among persons with eating disorders, particularly bulimia nervosa, than among those in the general population.

Eating disorders seem to develop in three stages. Stage 1 involves the period from the time a child is conceived until the onset of a particular behavior that precipitates the eating disorder. During this stage, individual psychological, personal, and physical factors, plus family, social, and cultural factors, place the person at increased risk. Individual risk factors include a personal history of depression, low self-esteem, perfectionism, an eagerness to please others, obesity, and physical or sexual abuse. Family risk factors include a family member with an eating disorder or a mood disorder and excessive familial concern for appearance and weight. Social and cultural issues include emphasis on the cultural ideal of excessive thinness, leading to dissatisfaction with the body and dieting for weight loss. Young women who are dancers, runners, skaters, gymnasts, and the like may be particularly susceptible to this kind of cultural pressure.

Stage 2 involves the factors which actually precipitate the eating disorder. Some identified precipitating factors include onset of puberty, leaving home, new relationships, death of a relative, illness, adverse comments about weight and body appearance, fear of maturation, the struggle for autonomy during the midteen years, and identity conflicts.

Stage 3 involves the factors which perpetuate the eating disorder. These can be cognitive distortions, interpersonal events, or biological changes related to starvation.

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