In this episode of Fighting Anorexia, I talk about possible reasons for developing an eating disorder. Though the exact cause is unknown, it is believed to be due to a combination of biological, psychological and/or environmental abnormalities. There are biological and psychological factors that play a role in the early stages of developing an eating disorder.
Genetic: Numerous studies have been undertaken that show a possible genetic predisposition toward eating disorders as a result of Mendelian inheritance.
There are various childhood personality traits associated with the development of eating disorders. During adolescence these traits may become intensified due to a variety of physiological and cultural influences such as the hormonal changes associated with puberty, stress related to the approaching demands of maturity and socio-cultural influences and perceived expectations, especially in areas that concern body image. Many personality traits have a genetic component and are highly heritable. Maladaptive levels of certain traits may be acquired as a result of anoxic or traumatic brain injury, neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s disease, neurotoxicity such as lead exposure, bacterial infection such as Lyme disease or viral infection such as Toxoplasma gondii as well as hormonal influences. While studies are still continuing via the use of various imaging techniques such as fMRI; these traits have been shown to originate in various regions of the brain such as the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex Disorders in the prefrontal cortex and the executive functioning system have been shown to affect eating behavior.
Child abuse which encompasses physical, psychological and sexual abuse, as well as neglect has been shown by innumerable studies to be a precipitating factor in a wide variety of psychiatric disorders, including eating disorders. Children who are subjected to abuse may develop a disordered eating in an effort to gain some sense of control or for a sense of comfort. Or they may be in an environment where the diet is unhealthy or insufficient. Child abuse and neglect can cause profound changes in both the physiological structure and the neurochemistry of the developing brain. Children who, as wards of the state, were placed in orphanages or foster homes are especially susceptible to developing a disordered eating pattern. In a study done in New Zealand 25% of the study subjects in foster care exhibited an eating disorder (Tarren-Sweeney M. 2006). An unstable home environment is detrimental to the emotional well-being of children, even in the absence of blatant abuse or neglect the stress of an unstable home can contribute to the development of an eating disorder.
Social isolation has been shown to have a deleterious effect on an individuals’ physical and emotional well-being. Those that are socially isolated have a higher mortality rate in general as compared to individuals that have established social relationships. This effect on mortality is markedly increased in those with pre-existing medical or psychiatric conditions, and has been especially noted in cases of coronary heart disease. “The magnitude of risk associated with social isolation is comparable with that of cigarette smoking and other major biomedical andpsychosocial risk factors.” (Brummett et al.)
Social isolation can be inherently stressful, depressing and anxiety provoking. In an attempt to ameliorate these distressful feelings an individual may engage in emotional eating in which food serves as a source of comfort. The loneliness of social isolation and the inherent stressors thus associated have been implicated as triggering factors in binge eating as well.
Parental influence has been shown to be an intrinsic component in developing the eating behaviors of children. This influence is manifested and shaped by a variety of diverse factors such as familial genetic predisposition, dietary choices as dictated by cultural or ethnic preferences, the parents’ own body shape and eating patterns, the degree of involvement and expectations of their children’s eating behavior as well as the interpersonal relationship of parent and child. This is in addition to the general psychosocial climate of the home and the presence or absence of a nurturing stable environment. It has been shown that maladaptive parental behavior has an important role in the development of eating disorders. As to the more subtle aspects of parental influence it has been shown that eating patterns are established in early childhood and that children should be allowed to decide when their appetite is satisfied as early as the age of two. A direct link has been shown between obesity and parental pressure to eat more.
Coercive tactics in regard to diet have not been proven to be efficacious in controlling a child’s eating behavior. Affection and attention have been shown to affect the degree of a childs’ finickiness and their acceptance of a more varied diet.
In various studies such as one conducted by The McKnight Investigators, peer pressure was shown to be a significant contributor to body image concerns and attitudes toward eating among subjects in their teens and early twenties.
Eleanor Mackey and co-author, Annette M. La Greca of the University of Miami, studied 236 teen girls from public high schools in southeast Florida. “Teen girls’ concerns about their own weight, about how they appear to others and their perceptions that their peers want them to be thin are significantly related to weight-control behavior,” says psychologist Eleanor Mackey of the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington and lead author of the study. “Those are really important.”
According to one study, 40% of 9- and 10-year-old girls are already trying to lose weight. Such dieting is reported to being influenced by peer behavior, with many of those individuals on a diet reporting that their friends also were dieting. The number of friends dieting and the number of friends who pressured them to diet also played a significant role in their own choices.
There is a cultural emphasis on thinness which is especially pervasive in western society. There is an unrealistic stereotype of what constitutes beauty and the ideal body type as portrayed by the media, fashion and entertainment industries. “The cultural pressure on men and women to be “[perfect]” is an important predisposing factor for the development of eating disorders” (Prof. Bryan Lask). Eating disorders are becoming more prevalent in non Western countries where thinness is not seen as the ideal, showing that social and cultural pressures are not the only causes of eating disorders. 
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