Causes of Anorexia & How to Prevent It

There is not one known specific cause of anorexia. Instead, experts agree that there are likely multiple contributing factors, including hormones, genes, and societal attitudes.

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TABLE OF CONTENTS | Root Causes | Genetics and Biology | Society | Prevention

Anorexia is a complex mental health disorder that can have emotional, physical, and behavioral symptoms. The root causes of anorexia can therefore range from biological to environmental factors.

Root Causes of Anorexia

Anorexia is an eating disorder characterized by an obsession with weight loss, a distorted body image, unhealthy eating patterns, and extreme fear of gaining weight. 

Anorexia can have many potential causes. They likely overlap and can be complexly intertwined. Causes of anorexia can include the following:

  • Genetics: family history of an eating disorder or mental illness
  • Biological factors: hormones and brain function
  • Environmental influences: stress and societal pressures

There are also many factors that can increase the risk of developing anorexia. If someone in your immediate family has health issues, such as weight problems, mental health problems like depression and substance abuse, physical illness, or an eating disorder, this puts you at higher risk.

Additional risk factors for anorexia can include the following:

  • Negative self-image or low self-esteem
  • Developmental issues
  • Social and cultural attitudes and perceptions of beauty
  • Desire for perfection, obsessive personality, and social pressures regarding size and shape
  • Being criticized or bullied for eating habits, weight, or body shape (particularly common for ballerinas, gymnasts, bodybuilders, models, jockeys, and athletes)
  • History of sexual abuse
  • Being overly concerned with your weight, shape, or being thin

Genetics, Biology & the Risk for Anorexia

Having an immediate family member with anorexia quadruples the odds that you will develop the disorder as well. This indicates that there is a strong genetic link for anorexia, and family history can be a contributing factor to anorexia. 

Anorexia is considered to be a heritable condition. 

Biological factors also contribute to the onset of anorexia. For instance, chemical imbalances in the brain related to feelings of pleasure, reward processing, appetite regulation, and stress management can all play a role in the development of anorexia. 

If you have dysregulation in any of these brain regions, chemical makeup, or brain circuitries, you can have a greater risk for mental illness and eating disorders.

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Society’s Role in Anorexia

Societal pressures and attitudes toward body image and shape can also be involved in the development of anorexia. 

The cultural ideal of beauty often involves being thin. Models, actors, and actresses are often portrayed this way in the public’s eye, even if they are being photoshopped to appear thinner than they already are. 

Adolescents and young women, who are at the highest risk for developing anorexia, often strive to be like their famous role models. This can involve an unhealthy attitude and perception of body image.

Advertising often glorifies the “ideal body” as being thin. Body shaming is also rampant.

Social media can have an impact on the onset of an eating disorder. The concept of needing to put the most positive and attractive image out to the world can be a driving force. 

There is also a disproportionately smaller number of plus-sized actors and actresses being portrayed favorably in the media compared to thin media personalities. Overall, there is a lack of body shape diversity in pop culture. 

How to Prevent Anorexia

One of the best methods to prevent anorexia is education. 

Talk to young teens about the potential hazards of an eating disorder and how it can impact a person medically and mentally. Make it clear that an eating disorder can even potentially be fatal. 

Prevention programs can be aimed at high-risk populations in schools and community centers. Educational programs through the media can help.

Encouraging healthy habits and maintaining overall general health can be preventative measures against eating disorders. Eating healthy and balanced meals, getting a safe amount of exercise regularly, and building up body positivity, mental health, and self-esteem can all be protective factors. Managing stress, working on emotional regulation, and being supportive are all beneficial. 

Watch for possible risk factors for anorexia, and spot signs and anorexia symptoms when they appear. Aim to recognize a potential problem as soon as it arises. 

This allows for quick intervention and potential enrollment into a treatment program as soon as possible. Early intervention ensures a better chance of sustained recovery.

Resources


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  2. Lie SO, Bulik CM, Andreassen OA, Oyvind R, Bang L. (2021). Stressful Life Events Among Individuals With a History of Eating Disorders: A Case-Control Comparison. BMC Psychiatry; 21:501.
  3. Paolacci, S, Kiani, AK, Manara, E, Beccari T, Ceccarini MR, Stuppia L, Chiurazzi P, Ragione LD, Bertelli M. (2020). Genetic Contributions to the Etiology of Anorexia Nervosa: New Perspectives in Molecular Diagnosis and Treatment. Molecular Genetics & Genomic Medicine; 8:7.
  4. NHS. (January 2021). Overview – Anorexia.
  5. Chung A, Vieira D, Donley T, Tan N, Jean-Louis G, Gouley KK, Seixas A. (2021). Adolescent Peer Influence on Eating Behaviors via Social Media: Scoping Review. Journal of Medical Internet Research; 23:6(e19697).
  6. Enochs E. (February 2016). 5 Ways Society Promotes Eating Disorders. Bustle.

Last Update | 11 - 14 - 2022

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