Eating disorders are complex psycho-physiologic challenges that require much more than simple determination and a strong will to conquer. One of every fifty children in the United States will deal with them at some point in their lives. And while eating disorders are generally seen as a form of mental illness, here at the Institute for the Psychology of Eating we see them as much more than that. We view eating disorders as powerful opportunities to look deeper into our lives at the underlying issues that inevitably have nothing to do with food. Eating disorders are a doorway into our life, our culture, our family system, and our world.

Indeed, while eating disorders afflict a great number of people in the world, they are not all caused by the same thing. There is no common soil in which all eating disorders are grown. Instead, causes of eating disorders are quite various, and no one can say for sure exactly how they arise.

Here’s a look at the top five top common causes of eating disorders:

Causes of Eating Disorders #1 |  Stress in a Complex World

It’s easy to forget that we live in a world filled with chaos, stress, war, violence, economic hardship, and very intense pressures from peers, society, family, media – just about everywhere. As humans, we are not always taught how to communicate well, how to express feelings, and how to resolve inner and outer conflicts. Many of us, as children, are astute enough to notice the pain and intensity of the environment we live in, but we do not have the tools to address it. Disordered eating grows out of such conditions. Our eating disorders are the body’s symbolic way of coping with a world that is overwhelming us.

Causes of Eating Disorders #2 | Family of Origin

Behaviors exhibited by your parents can have a great effect on whether or not you develop an eating disorder. The attitudes of parental figures are incredibly important in the development of a child’s psyche. When a parent has an unhealthy relationship with food, they reflect that way of thinking to their child. For instance, a mother’s unhealthy body image and obsession with calorie counting is easily transferred to her teenage daughter.

A recent study found that more than 40% of girls who were undertaking a diet were doing so because their mothers told them to. If a parent tells their child to diet or lose weight, they are planting the seeds of negative body image. When a mother or father treats a child in such a way as to make them feel inferior, there’s a significantly greater chance of that child developing an eating disorder.

Additionally, eating disorders can often be a coping mechanism that young people develop as a way to symbolically address difficulties at home, and challenges in their relationships with parents. It is a way that young people can unconsciously use to “react” to parents and siblings.

Causes of Eating Disorders #3 | History of Abuse

Between one- and two-thirds of girls and women who seek treatment for eating disorders have been the victims of sexual or physical abuse in their lives. Such traumatic events affect the psyche and self-esteem of these victims, and this devastation can manifest itself in the form of bulimia, anorexia nervosa, or other food-related disorders.

When someone is abused at an early age, they may use eating as a way to take control over their own body, or feel the need to punish themselves and their bodies because of lingering guilt or shame. Oftentimes, this punishment can appear in the form of nutritional deprivation. Conversely, overeating can stem from a need to fill an emotional void left by abuse or violence.

Causes of Eating Disorders #4 | Your Culture

We are constantly hit over our heads by the media idea of “physical perfection”. We see scantily dressed men and women who are in peak physical condition (and heavily photo shopped), and we are told that this is how we should look. Seeing such unattainable “perfection” nearly everywhere we look has a profound effect on our self-esteem. Our goals become unrealistic and unhealthy.

Television, movies and magazines also tell us that we must do whatever is in our power to re-create ourselves in that falsified image. We’re led to believe that if we’re 10 pounds above our goal weight it’s because we lack the conviction to diet and exercise. This misguided focus on unattainable beauty and self-control is a major contributing factor of eating disorders in both women and men today.

In essence, our task is to remove the viral beliefs that infect our minds around perfection and it’s attainment when it comes to food and weight. Most people understand this concept, but cannot truly feel and experience the powerful way that our minds are programmed to lead us down a road of self-attack around body image.

Causes of Eating Disorders #5 |  A Call for Growth and Transformation

Most of us are taught that our symptoms, diseases, emotional challenges, and unwanted habits are problems. In fact, they are the enemy that must be defeated because they are bad. But there is a different and more generous and holistic view of physical and emotional challenges and diseases. They are, on a deeper level, the wisdom of the body, and the wisdom of the universe speaking to us in a hidden language. Our challenges around food and health are here to ask us to grow. They are actually messengers of insight and wisdom that ask us to take a deeper look at our inner and outer worlds.

When an irritant enters an oyster, the oyster creates a beautiful pearl to surround and overcome it. This is the purpose of an eating disorder – to help us reach a higher place of beauty, grace and growth when life presents us with its inevitable challenges

Warm Regards,

The Institute for the Psychology of Eating

© Institute For The Psychology of Eating, All Rights Reserved, 2014


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P.S. If you haven’t had a chance to check out our FREE information packed video series – The Dynamic Eating Psychology Breakthrough – you can sign up for it HERE. It’s a great way to get a better sense of the work we do here at the Institute for the Psychology of Eating. If you’re inspired by this work and want to learn about how you can become certified as an Eating Psychology Coach, please go HERE to learn more. And if you’re interested in working on your own personal relationship with food, check out our breakthrough 8-week program designed for the public – Transform Your Relationship with Food™ HERE.

About The Author
Emily Rosen

Emily Rosen is the Director of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating, where she oversees business development strategies, student affairs, marketing and public relations in addition to her role as Senior Teacher. With an extensive and varied background in nutritional science, counseling, natural foods, the culinary arts, conscious sex education, mind body practices, business management and marketing, Emily brings a unique skill-set to her role at the Institute. She has also been a long-term director and administrator for Weight Loss Camps and Programs serving teens and adults and has held the position of Executive Chef at various retreat centers. Her passion for health and transformation has provided her the opportunity to teach, counsel, manage, and be at the forefront of the new wave of professionals who are changing the way we understand the science and psychology of eating and sexuality. Emily is also co -founder of the Institute for Conscious Sexuality and Relationship.