Pin Me

Insight into the Psychological Causes of Eating Disorders

written by: BettyHolt • edited by: Paul Arnold • updated: 1/5/2011

People with eating disorders have disturbances in eating behaviors. They may follow rigid diets, be obsessed with calories or gorge themselves and throw up afterwards. In short, they use food to stuff down uncomfortable or painful emotions. Psychological causes of eating disorders are explored here.

  • slide 1 of 4

    Eating Disorders

    The three main eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that 90 percent of eating disorders are amongst adolescent and young women, but they can happen to anyone, and there is an increase in their prevalence in ethnic minorities.

  • slide 2 of 4

    Psychological Causes of Eating Disorders

    There are psychological factors and personality traits which may predispose people to eating disorders. It is common for people with eating disorders to have low self-esteem, feel helpless and be very dissatisfied with their looks. People with anorexia, for example, tend to have perfectionist personalities, while those with bulimia are often impulsive.

    Many with eating disorders also suffer from depression and anxiety. Overeating temporarily soothes loneliness, sadness or anger, while restricting food can help someone feel more in control.

    Some people with eating disorders engage in impulsive or addictive behavior such as excessive alcohol or drug use, permissive sex or other dangerous impulsive behaviors.

    Binge eating is often preceded by "emotional triggers" -- feelings of anger, fear, loneliness or extreme stress. To soften the blow the person reacts by binging on food. Traumas such as rape, abuse, or the death of a loved one can also trigger eating disorders, as the person tries to cope by overeating or withdrawing from food.

    Some people do not know how to identify or deal with their feelings and emotions, so they internalize them and let the eating behavior serve as a release of the feelings they do not know how to cope with.

    Low self-esteem is one of the most common psychological causes of eating disorders, especially if it is linked to body image and appearance. The turmoil that comes with maturation and change in body shape in the teens and early adulthood can also be contributing factors.

    Learned behavior from one's upbringing can play an important role in how a person relates to food and to their body image. A parent with an eating disorder can give a child a skewed image of what is normal, as can a parent who focuses too much attention on the child's weight and appearance.

    Reactions to bullying or teasing by others, coupled with low self-esteem, can also help to bring on eating disorders.

  • slide 3 of 4

    Warning Signs

    According to helpguide.org, the following behaviors are outward indications of some of the psychological causes of eating disorders: preoccupation with weight or body; obsessing about calories, food or nutrition; dieting when thin; rapid weight loss or gain; compulsive exercising; taking laxatives or diet pills; making excuses to get out of eating; avoiding social situations that involve food; going to the bathroom immediately after meals; hoarding food; or eating alone, in secret, or at night.