Eating Disorders – Causes

There is no single cause for eating disorders. A number of factors play a part including psychological, social, cultural and family issues. Every case is individual and unique.

The disorder has often developed as a way of ‘coping’ with problems and stress. Learning why someone initially ‘escaped’ into their eating disorder can be a vital part of recovery. Individuals need to learn new and positive ways of dealing with difficult issues in life.

The illness can develop for many different reasons, including bullying, abuse, family issues, high pressure of academic success, and bereavement. It can be associated with a traumatic or challenging event and life changes.

Negative body image and low self-esteem are strongly implicated as other causes of eating disorders.

Additionally, it is possible that some people have a genetic predisposition for developing eating disorders, or that eating disorders are caused by chemical imbalances in the brain.

Furthermore, it has been suggested that dieting is a slippery slope to an eating disorder.


Eating Disorder – Signs

Someone with an eating disorder will show signs that can be seen but may be confusing to the observer. An individual will likely show some but not all of the signs noted below.

Behavioural Signs

  • Fear of becoming fat
  • Talking constantly about food, dieting and/or weight
  • Describing foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’
  • Dressing in baggy or layered clothing
  • Buying, hiding, or eating food in secret
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Excessive exercising in an attempt to lose weight
  • Making frequent trips to the bathroom especially right after eating
  • Gaining weight but eating little in the presence of others
  • Avoidance of social events- especially those based around meals or food.
  • Significant weight gain or weight loss in a short amount of time

Psychological and Emotional Signs

  • Mood shifts (irritability, depression, shame and self-hate)
  • Feeling of inadequacy
  • Social isolation
  • Self-worth determined by what is or is not eaten
  • Eating disordered behaviours are used as a coping mechanism
  • Feeling out of control with food
  • Denial that there is any problem

Comorbid Mental Health

A lot of individuals who struggle with an eating disorder may have what is known as a comorbidity. This means that alongside their eating disorder they may struggle with other mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, personality disorder, etc.

Physiological Signs

  • Weight gain or fluctuations not explained by medical conditions
  • Chronic sore throat
  • Swollen glands, puffy face
  • Cracked mouth
  • Broken blood vessels in eyes and face
  • Damaged tooth enamel
  • Fatigue and muscle aches
  • Dental problems
  • Dizzy Spells
  • Constipation
  • Periods irregular or stop completely
  • Insomnia
  • Low or high blood pressure
  • Dry skin & Hair, Brittle Nails and teeth
  • Irregular Heart beat or other heart related disorders
  • Sleep Apnea (stopping breathing during sleep- caused by an obstruction, British Snoring & Sleep Apnoea Association, 2016)

Eating disorders can often be non-specific when they include symptoms from a number or different illnesses. Disordered eating can take many different forms. Do not dismiss a problem just because someone does not fit within a particular ‘label’.


Effects of Eating Disorders

Eating disorders can have various effects on the body depending on the disorder, your gender and the severity of the disorder.

An eating disorder can have ‘minor’ effects on your body such as stunted growth or fatigue but these are just symptoms of the more serious threats these disorders can cause.

Eating disorders don’t just affect the biological aspects of your body. They also affect your mind and psyche often in the form of depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic attacks and heightened anxiety.

A lot of the time a sufferer will be thinking about food and calories, mostly planning their next meals (what to eat, what foods to avoid and calculating calories) or routines for the coming days or even weeks and meticulously sticking to the routine they have set for themselves to follow in order to reach their goal of their ‘ideal’ weight.

It doesn’t stop just there though. Sufferers can and will withdraw from social activities more and more as the disorder progresses particularly from events that involve the consumption of food fearing that their disorder can be discovered by others. This will lead to social isolation of the sufferer from their friends and families.

One of the most difficult things about eating disorders is that they invade every part of you – your thinking, your feelings, and your body. One of the first tasks is to decide what is you and what is the eating disorder.  The physical effects of an eating disorder lock you into a vicious cycle. This cycle can be difficult to break.

Physical Disability

Weakness associated with starvation/overeating or salt or hormonal imbalance may make you feel vulnerable and inadequate. You may see this as further evidence of ‘personal weakness’ and diet more. This starts a self-defeating vicious cycle.

Emotional Disturbances

Weight loss and focusing on controlling diets can lead to depression and irritability. You may try to deal with these ‘unacceptable’ aspects of yourself by increasing your disordered behaviours.

Effects on the Brain

The way your brain works is affected – concentration, attention, memory, learning and problem solving are affected. These effects may cloud your judgment and it may be difficult to have rational thoughts about your illness and other problems in general.

Effects on your Social Life

Your preoccupation with food will limit your ability to socialise. You are likely to lose your interest in friendships and general activities. You lose your sense of humour. Friends may become bored and drift away. Unfortunately, you will probably be tempted to deal with this by using your eating disorder.

Effect on your Digestive System

You may find that meals are highly distressing. Just the sight of certain foods may lead you into panic due to associating them with massive weight gain. Bloating or feeling full very quickly is partly due to a delay in emptying your stomach if you are restricting your diet. This is because the muscles from your abdominal wall will have been eaten away during starvation and therefore sags.  Overeating and abuse of laxatives can overload your digestive system and make it inefficient and prone to problems.


You will experience a loss of sex hormones. Your desire for relationships vanishes – this can make your life very simple. However, this can lead to you feeling different to everyone else, a bit of a gooseberry. It may add to your feelings of something being ‘wrong’ with you.

Changes in Body composition

With excessive weight loss you will lose bone, brain and muscle tissue. These losses are invisible to the naked eye but can be seen by special X-rays. It may be difficult to accept that you need to gain weight as your body still seems to be working.  There are similar serious effects with excessive weight gain and weight fluctuations such as diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and cholesterol and other serious diseases

Effects on the mind

Mood is lowered and you become depressed. The mind becomes preoccupied with food and there is often a strong urge to overeat. The ability and interest in forming and maintaining friendships is decreased and there is a feeling of being isolated from others. Concentration is poor and it is difficult to work to the best of your ability. Even minor problems seem huge and as if they can’t be solved.