Understanding why someone has an eating disorder means we have to understand all the factors that play a part in the development of eating disorders. Research suggests there are many factors that set a person up to be vulnerable to developing an eating disorder. Genetics, cultural and social messages, individual psychological and physiological factors, family dynamics, life events, and lifestyle behaviors can all combine to make a person vulnerable to disordered eating, even though none of those factors by themselves are enough to cause an eating disorder.
Much of the latest research suggests that there is a definite genetic component in eating disorders. Identical twins, who share the same genetic makeup, are more likely than fraternal twins, who only share some genetic overlap, to have eating disorders if their twin has an eating disorder. While we don’t know much about the genetic link yet, experts are becoming more confident that a link does exist.
Research studies have shown that countries that are not exposed to Western culture have lower rates of eating disorders than Westernized societies, and that when societies begin including more Western media and culture in their society, the incidence of eating disorders begins to grow. This suggest that there are some messages in Western culture and media that are not healthy for the development of self-esteem and good eating habits; messages focusing on thin being the only type of attractiveness or that fat = bad. Obviously, not everyone who hears these messages develops an eating disorder, but our culture seems to play a part in laying the foundation for an eating disorder.
At a more personal level, many social interactions in an individual’s life can leave a person vulnerable to developing an eating disorder. Adolescence is a period when people are very competitive with peers and compare themselves to peers to establish a sense of worth or belonging. The peer comparison, social pressure, teasing, need for acceptance, and self-consciousness are normal (if unpleasant) parts of adolescence, and it is not surprising that at this stage we most frequently see the beginning of disordered eating behavior. Also, family problems, physical or sexual abuse, loss of a loved one, or other events can contribute to the onset of an eating disorder.
Individual characteristics play a definite role in developing disordered eating. There is no “profile” of a person with anorexia or bulimia; everyone is different in meaningful ways, so obviously no two people experience eating disorders in the same way. But we can see some patterns. Often people with eating disorders have been high achievers; perfectionists about school, friends, social life, or extracurricular activities; people pleasers; and may even have tendencies toward depression or obsessive thinking.
- Rader Program for Eating Disorders (www.raderprograms.com)
- Eating Disorders and Obesity: A Comprehensive Handbook, 2nd Edition (2002) Fairburn & Brownell, Eds. New York: Guilford Press.