Eating disorders are a range of psychological conditions that cause unhealthy eating habits to develop. They might start with an obsession with food, body weight, or body shape.
In severe cases, eating disorders can cause serious health consequences and may even result in death if left untreated.
Those with eating disorders can have a variety of symptoms. However, most include the severe restriction of food, food binges, or purging behaviors like vomiting or over-exercising.
Although eating disorders can affect people of any gender at any life stage, they’re most often reported in adolescents and young women. In fact, up to 13% of youth may experience at least one eating disorder by the age of 20 (2Trusted Source).
Summary Eating disorders are mental health conditions marked by an obsession with food or body shape. They can affect anyone but are most prevalent among young women.
What causes them?
Experts believe that eating disorders may be caused by a variety of factors.
One of these is genetics. Twin and adoption studies involving twins who were separated at birth and adopted by different families provide some evidence that eating disorders may be hereditary.
This type of research has generally shown that if one twin develops an eating disorder, the other has a 50% likelihood of developing one too, on average (3Trusted Source).
Personality traits are another cause. In particular, neuroticism, perfectionism, and impulsivity are three personality traits often linked to a higher risk of developing an eating disorder (3Trusted Source).
Other potential causes include perceived pressures to be thin, cultural preferences for thinness, and exposure to media promoting such ideals (3Trusted Source).
In fact, certain eating disorders appear to be mostly nonexistent in cultures that haven’t been exposed to Western ideals of thinness (4Trusted Source).
That said, culturally accepted ideals of thinness are very present in many areas of the world. Yet, in some countries, few individuals end up developing an eating disorder. Thus, they are likely caused by a mix of factors.
More recently, experts have proposed that differences in brain structure and biology may also play a role in the development of eating disorders.
In particular, levels of the brain messengers serotonin and dopamine may be factors (5, 6).
However, more studies are needed before strong conclusions can be made.
Summary Eating disorders may be caused by several factors. These include genetics, brain biology, personality traits, and cultural ideals.
The bottom line
The categories above are meant to provide a better understanding of the most common eating disorders and dispel myths about them.
Eating disorders are mental health conditions that usually require treatment. They can also be damaging to the body if left untreated.
If you have an eating disorder or know someone that might have one, seek help from a healthcare practitioner that specializes in eating disorders.