What is an eating disorder?

What causes eating disorders?

Page last updated: May 2007

The causes of anorexia and bulimia remain unclear. Biological, psychological and social factors are all involved. The most strongly related risk factor for the development of an eating disorder is dieting.

Genetic factors

There is some evidence that women who have a mother or sister with anorexia nervosa are much more likely to develop the disorder themselves than are women who do not have a family member with the disorder.

Biochemical factors

Chemical or hormonal imbalances, particularly those associated with the onset of puberty, may be related to the development of an eating disorder.

Personal factors

A range of individual factors have been linked with eating disorders, including:
  • Changes in life circumstances, such as the onset of adolescence, breakdown of relationships, childbirth, or death of a loved one.
  • Perfectionism and a belief that love from family and friends depends on high achievement.
  • Fear of the responsibilities of adulthood.
  • Poor communication between family members or parental reluctance to allow independence as children mature.

Social influences

Eating disorders are increasing in western societies, and this has been linked to our obsession with body image.

A growth in websites encouraging dangerous dieting for girls and young women is particularly alarming.

The media presents being thin as the ideal body shape and is preoccupied with people's physical characteristics. People who are overweight or obese tend to be negatively stereotyped.