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What Causes Eating Disorders and What Can Be Done
It is clear to see the risk and the damage involved with the range of eating disorder diagnoses, but the root causes can be difficult to recognize. In part this could be due to the fact that eating disorders are not one condition, but several conditions separated by unique symptoms.
- Pica: the eating of nonfood substances.
- Rumination disorder: reoccurring regurgitation of food that is then re-swallowed or spit out.
- Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder: lack of food intake not related to view of self or weight.
- Anorexia nervosa: restricting food intake due to fear of gaining weight or being overweight.
- Bulimia nervosa: periods of binge eating followed by behaviors to prevent weight gain like vomiting, using laxatives or extreme exercise.
- Binge-eating disorder: periods of binge eating with a lack of control over eating.
Each condition has its own set of symptoms and outcomes depending on the individual. Pica, rumination disorder, and avoidance/restrictive food intake disorder are normally associated with periods of early childhood (though pica can reappear during pregnancy) and commonly resolve over time causing little harm.
The same cannot be said for anorexia, bulimia and binge-eating disorder.
Eating Disorder Risk Factors
With extended periods of symptoms, these conditions can trigger a great deal of harm and can be fatal. Because of this, learning their causes becomes a necessary task.
Research shows that eating disorders are much more common in females than in males. With anorexia and bulimia, the rate is 10 females for every one male. With binge-eating, the rate is two females for every one male.
So, being female becomes a major risk factor for an eating disorder. Other risk factors include:
- Family history of eating disorders.
- Engaging in a strict or strenuous diet.
- Presence of another mental health issue like depression or anxiety.
- Past traumatic event.
- Having high stress.
High stress is an important risk factor when combined with the reactions the person has to the stress. If someone routinely uses healthy coping skills to address small stressors before they become larger stressors, an eating disorder may not develop.
If someone does not have these skills, the stressors will grow and evolve into new concerns. High stress frequently triggers or intensifies symptoms of depression and anxiety, but since eating disorders are most common among female adolescents and young adults, there must be another force at play.
It seems that eating disorders may have another layer of risk factors that include perceptions and opinions like:
- Worrying about and being more concerned with weight and figure.
- Having a poor self-esteem and low view of self-worth.
- Having a focus on being perfect.
- Holding self to high standards.
- Having strong, rigid views on ideas of health and physical appearance.
A chronic runny nose can be an uncomfortable experience for anyone. Often, it may be a side effect of a cold or flu, or for a variety of other reasons.
In many cases, these views will form from the person, while other times, they will develop from the opinions of others in their family, school, social network, or society as a whole. So, if someone meets the criteria of the first-line risk factors, and then they meet the second-line factors, they are at greater risk of developing an eating disorder.
Eating disorders are poor coping skills that masquerade as positive coping skills. At the beginning, the thoughts and behaviors will make sense and be more grounded in logic.
Someone with high stress may feel out of control, and they will be interested in finding something they can gain control over, like food or weight. They begin to associate lower weight with increased happiness, or in binge eating, increased food intake with happiness.
Of course, the sense of control and power are illusions because lower weight does not equal happiness, and neither does increased food intake. Before long, they become powerless over the facet of life they wanted control over and symptoms worsen.
What Can Be Done?
Regardless of the causes, the question remains: what can be done to improve eating disorders?
Practice Positive Coping Skills
If stress is a major first-line contributor to eating disorders, goals should focus on reducing stress. The plan should be to employ many healthy, positive coping skills from many segments of life.
Spend time with friends to build social health; eat well, exercise, and get enough rest to improve physical health; and find ways to be active in your community to provide a sense of purpose and value. If the current coping skills are not enough, be on the lookout for new and extended versions.
Assess and Modify Beliefs
How do you view yourself and the world around you? Do you speak kindly to yourself?
With perceptions of self-worth being at the center of the second-line risk factors, these views must be identified and changed to something more realistic and hopeful. Consider the sources of these opinions to see if you agree.
If you are basing your opinions on someone that you do not respect, change should come. Remember, opinions are easily changeable.
Seek Preventative Treatment
Mental health treatment in the form of medication management prescribed by a psychiatrist, and counseling from a competent therapist, will be crucial here to address first-line and second-line risk factors.
Treatment can aid in reducing stress, managing other mental health conditions, addressing past trauma, and finding new ways to modify distorted thoughts about self, body image and beauty. Eating disorders can be more difficult to treat once they are fully established, so starting early will lead to better results in the long-term.
Seek Eating Disorder Treatment
Eating disorders are not to be taken lightly. They are not something that people “just get over.” If an eating disorder has developed, specialized treatment will be required to improve outcomes.
Like so many other mental health issues, eating disorders do not have a clear path. There is no direct cause and effect relationship that triggers problems with food.
Instead, eating disorders develop due to complex interactions between family history, stressful situations, and views on self-worth. Working to understand these interactions will increase the opportunity for prevention, but if symptoms do develop, mental health treatment options do exist to end symptoms and improve overall wellbeing.