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causes of eating disorders

What causes an eating disorder?

It is important to understand that an eating disorder is merely a symptom of an underlying problem. Eating disorders can have many causes but food is not one of them. The onset of the sufferer’s eating disorder is typically triggered by one or more events in their life. An eating disorder can be understood by the following:

Cause > Trigger > Symptom

The causes or underlying issues are different for every eating disordered person. The cause may be a traumatic event that has happened in their life, possibly years before the eating disorder manifested. Some examples of possible causes of an eating disorder include:
  • Sexual abuse or rape
  • Physical violence
  • Emotional abuse
  • Divorce of parents
  • Death of a loved one
  • Serious illness in the family
  • Peer pressure
  • Surgery/ill health as a child
  • Traumatic life-threatening event
These are only some of the possible causes and they are not applicable to all eating disorder sufferers. Additionally, they are only initial causes meaning that, at this point, the person does not and may not suffer from an eating disorder in the future. Remember, not everybody who is raped develops an eating disorder, neither do all victims of sexual abuse, or those whose parents have had a bad relationship.

What triggers an eating disorder?

At this point, the individual has experienced a traumatic event in their life, but this alone does not necessarily mean they will develop an eating disorder. The trigger could be in the same list as the causes above or it might be an unrelated, relatively minor event that the sufferer could ordinarily cope with. However, because they already have low self-esteem brought on by the cause(s) of the eating disorder, they are unable to cope with any additional stress and turn to food as a method of coping.

Finally, the trigger leads to the start of the individual’s focus on food and weight. In the case of anorexia, it often starts out as merely a diet that progressively becomes more and more obsessive. Nobody starts out intending to become eating disordered. It is something that happens gradually over time.

Genetic links to eating disorders

A 2002 study by the University of Pennsylvania suggested that there may be genetic reasons behind an individual’s eating disorder. Although this does not discount the psychological factors, research indicated that genetic linkage on chromosome 1 could explain why more than one family member would develop anorexia nervosa.

Any possible genetic treatment could be years away and, for now, the treatment would be the same as with individuals who do not exhibit genetic traits of anorexia.

The Maudsley Hospital in London conducted a similar study in 1999 but focusing on the serotonin system rather than chromosome 1. Variations were found in the gene for serotonin receptors in anorexic patients. Dr David Collier, a member of the research team, made the following statements:

We were involved in a genetic study to look through the whole human genome to try and find genes for anorexia.

“But because of our own interest in the serotonin system, and its role in eating, we thought we’d look at that and see if we can identify any genes from their role in behaviour.

“The one we picked first was the 5HT2A receptor, because that’s known to be involved in regulating feeding, and drugs that block it cause weight gain.”

Variations were found in the gene for serotonin receptors in anorexic patients. They were twice as likely to have the variant gene than women without eating disorders.