Psychology of Eating Disorders: Top 5 Causes of Eating Disorders

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scrabble tiles on a dark brown oak table where you can read words eating disorders, anorexia, and bulimia

The psychology of eating disorders is complex and involves various factors such as genetics, societal and cultural pressures, body dissatisfaction, and traumatic events. So eating disorders are complex and require much more than simple determination and a strong will to overcome them. 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.

The Psychology Behind Eating Disorders

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, the causes of eating disorders are quite varied, 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:

The Top 5 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, and 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. That is why it is necessary to learn how to fix disordered eating.

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.

So, are you battling an eating disorder? Can you identify the psychological causes of your eating disorders? Share your thoughts in the comments. Let’s have a chat.

scrabble tiles on a dark brown oak table where you can read words eating disorders, anorexia, and bulimia

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