Why Do Eating Disorders Happen?
Eating disorders may occur suddenly or creep up on your slowly. However, often, it will begin long before you know you’re struggling in your relationship with eating and food. Over time, it may change and develop – perhaps you may begin by restricting your food intake but then over time begin overeating. There are also several types of eating disorder, from anorexia and bulimia to binge eating disorder and ARFID. There is one common thread, though. Eating disorders can affect anyone and everyone of any gender, age, or walk of life.
So, why do eating disorders happen?
To understand the reasons why eating disorders occur, it’s important to know what eating disorders aren’t. It’s also important to look at the different triggers that crop up during the course of your lifetime that could tip you over the edge into an unhealthy relationship with eating. Here, we’ll take a closer look at some of the causes and risk factors that result in the development of eating disorders.
What Is An Eating Disorder Not?
Many people believe that eating disorders are caused by vanity, attention-seeking behaviors or a lack of willpower. Nothing could be further from the truth. An eating disorder is a complex mental-health problem that has a simple beginning – simply desiring to be more attractive – but that over time morphs into something a lot more sinister. To complicate matters, many people who suffer from eating disorders don’t appear to be mentally ill. Instead, they appear to be intelligent, sensitive and high-functioning people who live a normal life and maintain normal relationships. For this reason it can be extra difficult to pinpoint the reasons that lie behind their issues.
The Risk Factors
Eating disorders don’t have a single cause. Rather, there are numerous risk factors that give a person a greater chance of developing one. There are also known risk factors associated with certain forms of eating disorder.
In general, those suffering from eating disorders, regardless of type, will be more prone to suffering from anxiety, will be sensitive and will have low self-esteem while holding up high standards for themselves. Those factors will come together for a reason that is personal to the sufferer. Sometimes, it will be as a result of life experiences, sometimes it may be down to genetics, yet the overall outcome is the same.
Some of the best-known risk factors for developing eating disorders include:
- Close relatives who suffer from eating disorders
- Fat-shaming behavior at school or home
- Neglect, abandonment or neglect in childhood
- Loss or trauma in childhood
- Early puberty in girls
- Obesity during childhood
- Poor family or personal relationships
- Problems with sexual identity
- Having a close friend who suffers from an eating disorder
- Your own character and personality
- The culture you live in
Identifying Personal Risks
Since there is no single cause for eating disorders, any number of things may make an individual vulnerable and usually it will be a combination of several factors that tip you over the edge into a serious problem. These will be personal to the sufferer. Perhaps you’ve been under a lot of pressure and stress at home, school or work. Perhaps you have no support network and low emotional resilience. Maybe you’re going through family problems and feel responsible for making everything better. Maybe you’re struggling to identify your own negative emotions like fear or anger because you have a poor emotional connection to yourself due to focusing more on the feelings of others as a way of staying safe. Maybe you fear the consequence of expressing your negative emotions. When all of these factors come together in one perfect storm, it’s easy to see how an eating disorder can be the final result.
Eating disorders in every case are a stress response. They don’t just occur. They become triggered at periods of our lives when we’re going through dramatic stresses. While it begins as a small thing – trying to cope with vulnerabilities – it eventually grows and turns into an all-consuming, life-altering problem.
People often turn to food as a way of coping with vulnerabilities and stresses. Perhaps by over-eating because food gives a sense of comfort in difficult situations, or perhaps by restricting food intake as a way of becoming slimmer and more attractive to others and so to improve self-esteem and obtain acceptance. While this isn’t a healthy approach or coping strategy, it’s a common one and one that can easily be understood.
People who suffer from eating disorders often have a very strong need for more control, not just of their own feelings, but for the way other people feel about them. Those who lack effective and healthy strategies for managing their feelings and who struggle with self-confidence issues often struggle to get their needs properly met in their relationships, only adding further to their stress. Those who have binge-eating issues are more likely to be highly reliant on other people for approval and give to others too much, while those who suffer from bulimia are more likely to have avoidant patterns of relating to other people due and are more likely to suffer from excess shame for having their own needs that they believe are undeserved. Anorexics, meanwhile, are most likely to be expressing deep sadness or pain that they are experiencing but cannot express verbally. To complicate issues further, they may not even be aware of the cause of that pain. This is why it takes a skilled and experienced therapist to help uncover the reasons behind the eating disorder and to unpick the meaning of the problem in the past or the present that has given rise to such strong emotional pain.
It’s possible to learn about some of the things that contribute to the development of eating disorders by looking at the rituals and behaviors of the sufferer. For example, if they follow highly restricted diets and refuse to eat certain types of food in an effort to “be good”, they may have experienced something that has made them feel impure or contaminated within themselves. Those who purge may have an erroneous belief that purging will prevent weight gain, while binge eaters are often demonstrating that they have lost their ability to find healthy and effective ways of coping with the stress that they encounter in their daily lives.
Eating disorders rob a sufferer of the positive elements of their personality, and they begin to use those positive elements over time to become increasingly creative so they can pursue their unhealthy eating behaviors. Creative eating disorder sufferers will find new ways to suppress their hunger. They will continue to overexercise even if they are in pain. They will work out ways to purge without family members noticing. And they will find new and unusual places to hide the evidence of their over-eating.
Over time, regardless of the form they take, eating disorders interfere with all of the normal elements in the sufferer’s life, from relationships to their education and work. The result is a void that can only be filled by starvation or by bingeing. Yet, it becomes increasingly difficult to ask for help or even to accept it when it’s offered. This is due to several reasons including the shame the sufferer experiences, their own feeling that they don’t deserve the help, an inability to recognize the severity of their own illness, or even because the eating disorder serves a purpose in helping them to manage their moods and get through each day.
The Causes Of Eating Disorders At Different Life Stages
We tend to think of eating disorders as only affecting teenage girls, however this simply isn’t the case. Older women, elderly people and men of all ages are affected too. Yet, the causes and triggers are different at each stage of life.
Teenagers And Eating Disorders
Teenagers are particularly susceptible to developing eating disorders due to the hormonal changes that occur during puberty paired with the pressure put on your people by their peers and by the media to be thin and attractive. While these changes are quite normal, and many teenagers practice unhealthy eating patterns from time to time some will begin to obsess about their diet, appearance or weight, and will consistently begin to overeat or starve themselves. They will begin to make frequent negative comments about their size, shape or weight, and may begin to display ongoing unhealthy behaviors around food. Teenagers and young adults are also under increased stress in their lives. They need to achieve at school and college in order to do well in life, and they often feel under pressure to excel by their family members. At the same time, peer pressure to fit in can cause even more problems. The effect can be a full-blown eating disorder that requires treatment.
Men And Eating Disorders
Many people believe that eating disorders solely affect women, however this isn’t true. Although women are more likely to be affected by an eating disorder than men, males are certainly not immune and, what’s more, they’re more likely to be underdiagnosed and untreated. Some men have a condition known as muscle dysmorphia – the extreme desire to develop bigger muscles. Although women with eating disorders usually want to be thinner and lose weight, men tend to believe they’re too small and are eager to increase their muscle mass and gain weight. This can lead not only to issues surrounding food but also other dangerous behaviors like using steroids or other drugs to boost their muscle mass more rapidly. This type of behavior can affect men of all ages, and is a particular problem among teenage boys and older gay men.
Mothers And Eating Disorders
Eating disorders are certainly not restricted to younger people. Stressful situations are a known trigger for food-related issues and one of the most challenging times in a woman’s life is after she becomes a mother. It’s the perfect storm of a lack of self-confidence due to the changes that pregnancy and birth cause to their bodies and the added pressure of having to care for a child that can tip women at this stage of their life into an eating disorder. In an effort to gain more control in a difficult situation, they may turn to restrictive patterns of eating or, alternatively, seek comfort in food to cope with the problems they face.
Eating Disorders And Older People
Even the elderly aren’t immune from eating disorders. Older people are just as vulnerable to the pressures and stresses that trigger unhealthy eating patterns as the young. Added into the mix the fact that older people often have a poor appetite and that they are at more risk of depression and social isolation, it’s easy to see why this often overlooked group suffer from eating disorders that frequently go undiagnosed and untreated.
Treating Eating Disorders In All Age Groups
Treating eating disorders isn’t all about pinpointing the cause, but it also isn’t just about eliminating the symptoms. The approach must be a holistic one that is designed to make the sufferer a happier, more confident person who can cope more effectively with their feelings and emotions, have much better relationships, and find more purpose and meaning in their life.
To treat eating disorders in any age group, it’s important to look to the future rather than back to the past, and teach the sufferer new coping skills that will equip them to face the challenges that they will inevitably face at some point in a healthier and safer way. A mix of therapies is required to heal past traumas while also furnishing the sufferer with methods and techniques that they can put to use to improve their lives.
The best way to address any type of eating disorder, regardless of the age, gender or situation of the sufferer, is to find an experienced and caring therapist who can offer the necessary guidance, support and help to guide the sufferer through their problems and show them new ways to navigate their future.
Looking for help with an eating disorder? At The Meadowglade, we offer culturally competent and comprehensive care that will help you figure out what comes next on your road to recovery!