Eating Disorders And Their Causes

 By: Annabelle Wolski
Eating disorders have become a major health problem in recent years and, according to the health professionals, they are caused by many different factors. Every person with an eating disorder will be affected by these different factors in their own way. These include social and cultural factors, psychological factors, family influences, biological factors and external issues.

The starting point of an eating disorder can often be a diet. If the diet is a particularly strict regime, the risk is even greater. In people who have underlying factors, it may be the thing that pushes him or her over the edge if the diet is prolonged. Of course, we must remember that not everyone who follows a diet will develop an eating disorder.

For family or friends, the search for the single cause of a loved ones eating disorder is fruitless. Many think that finding a single cause will help everyone to understand and be more able to help the person 'get over it'. If only it were that simple!!! It is definitely important for those family and friends to focus on supporting the person while they recover from this disorder under the guidance of health professionals.

Some of the different factors or influences that can contribute to an eating disorder include:

Cultural and Social Influence

In the past decade, there has been a great deal of attention focused on the social attitudes and influences that can cause eating disorders. The ideal of being thin is portrayed in all types of media in the western world, leading the not so thin to believe that they must diet in order to achieve this ideal body. This idealization of the perfect body can be one of the greatest social influences contributing to eating disorders as around thirty percent of young women are on weight loss diets at any given time.

The social attitudes and influences that contribute to this critical yearning to be slim include:

The fact that the models in magazines and on television are around a size eight or less while the average woman is around a size 14. this constant imagery of the 'perfect' body is unrealistic but it reinforces the ideas that this is the normal and the expected shape of a woman. Men, in a similar way, are constantly bombarded with the image of the handsome and muscular man, leaving them with the belief that it is the normal and ideal body for a man.

Overweight people are constantly shown as unhappy individuals who have lost control of their life, leaving them lonely and depressed.

Slim people are shown in the media as being successful, happy, and always in control of their lives. The media normally portrays these people as lively and fun loving individuals.

There appears to be a higher value put on physical appearance than on the inner qualities and non physical attributes of people in the modernized culture.

Some career paths put constant pressure on people to be thin.

Psychological Factors

There appears to be certain personality traits that are more common to people with the predisposition to develop an eating disorder. These include:

Lack of self esteem. Almost everyone who has an eating disorder has a low self esteem and this is exacerbated by the guilt associated with the disorder itself. The person may have had a troubled childhood or may even have been a victim of abuse. These however, are not the only causes of poor self esteem.

Having very high expectations of self and being unable to live up to these expectations.

Belief that people will only love them if they are high achievers.

Being unable to express their own needs and being unable to be assertive in their need to say 'no' to others when needed.

A history of loneliness, anger, anxiety and depression.

Any of these factors can be exacerbated by the starvation caused by bulimia or anorexia, thus making the situation even worse for the sufferer.

The Influence of Family

There are no particular predictors of a type of family where there is a more pronounced likelihood of a child developing an eating disorder though communication and expectations within a family may contribute to these disorders.

One thing that can have a dramatic and negative effect on young people of both genders is unrealistically high expectations from their parents. Often, these expectations affect all areas of their life such as education, sport, appearance, and weight control. Parents don't set out to put pressure on their children but merely want to help them to create a positive future for themselves. In so doing, however, they may be setting that child up for an eating disorder.

Sometimes communication and expression are lacking in family relationships. This can lead to frustration particularly if the feelings are negative. This can be the catapult for the child to develop an eating disorder.

If a parent or parents are continually dieting and are themselves obsessed with body weight and image, they may pass these values on to the child while he or she is still very young.

Biological Factors

There is some speculation that certain biological factors may contribute to the likelihood of a person developing an eating disorder. Some theories include:

In people with low levels of serotonin, eating disorders may be more likely to develop. Serotonin is the chemical responsible for transmitting messages from the brain about the need for food, sleep, and other matters. It has already been established that people with clinical depression have lower levels of serotonin.

It is possible that people with eating disorders may have a reduced blood flow to part of their brain.

The chance of an eating disorder may be associated with the hormonal imbalances that are a characteristic of puberty.

External Aspects

Sometimes things happen in life and the continuing pressure associated with these events can make people who are already vulnerable more likely to develop an eating disorder. For instance, a teenager who may already be on a strict diet may lose a parent and this may push him or her over the edge.

External factors that may trigger an eating disorder include:

A major life crisis such as the death of a loved one, a change of school or job, unemployment, the breakup of a relationship, or finding out that you have a serious illness.

Smaller, ongoing stresses like money worries and insults from people about size, weight and general appearance.

Regardless of the cause, it is extremely important to show the person as much support as possible, encouraging the person to seek help as quickly as possible.
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