What Causes Eating Disorders? Genetics vs. Environment

Eating disorders like anorexia nervosa (AN) and (BN) were once thought to be primarily socially driven, caused by factors like low self-esteem and a desire to keep up with certain beauty standards.

Reviewed By | Bridget Clerkin

11 sources cited

But as research and technology have gotten more refined, scientists have uncovered a growing number of biological and genetic contributions to the development of many common eating disorders.

In reality, eating disorders are complex conditions caused and perpetuated by a number of interlocking genetic, biological, and environmental factors. But there are still some risk factors that can make someone more prone to developing eating disorders.

What Are the Most Common Causes of Eating Disorders?

Eating disorders are considered mental disorders for a reason. Whether they involve binge eating or severe diet restriction, eating disorder behaviors generally act as maladaptive coping mechanisms.

Many people who experience eating disorders use strict control over what they eat—or the lack thereof—to help them deal with deeper pains and anxieties. Indeed, a variety of depressive and anxiety disorders have been found to co-occur with eating disorders at very high rates, with some studies finding an overlap of eating disorders and mood disorders occurring in as many as 94% of patients. [1]

Mood disorders may co-occur with eating disorders in as many as 94% of patients.

Stress in the environment can also trigger someone’s genetics in a way that results in disordered eating behaviors. And social pressures can further contribute to feelings like low self-esteem, which some researchers consider to be a necessary prerequisite for developing all types of eating disorders. [2]

While it’s almost always a combination of biological and environmental risk factors that lead to an eating disorder diagnosis, there are any number of specific factors within those categories that can play a role.

Genetic Causes of Eating Disorders

Genetics can play a huge role in the development of eating disorders, impacting everything from someone’s particular biology, or the way their body is built and functions, to their genes themselves, which hold all the potential qualities someone may eventually develop.

Genetics can also have a large impact on someone’s psychological outlook or propensity to experience co-occurring mental health conditions, which can contribute to developing eating disorders.

Anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder have all been found to be at least moderately heritable, meaning the conditions tend to run in families. [3,4]

Scientists are still unraveling just how much of that connection is genetic compared to environmental, but there is at least some evidence that inherited genetic factors, such as the way someone responds to stress, can increase the risk of participating in disordered eating behaviors. [3,5]

Like eating disorders themselves, someone’s mental health is impacted by both environmental and genetic factors.

Genetics have been linked to human development and how children interact with, and respond to, their social and physical environments as they mature. These interactions can then go on to influence the risk of developing an eating disorder.

Specifically, researchers have found that genetic factors play a significant role in someone’s ability to accurately gauge their body shape and size and their overall body dissatisfaction. [6]

How an individual’s body functions can also put them at a higher risk of developing disordered eating behaviors.

The reward system in the brain is closely tied to feelings of hunger, satiety, and happiness, among others. And dysfunctions in this system have been connected in some studies to a higher risk of experiencing bulimia nervosa, anorexia nervosa, and binge eating behaviors. [7]

Environmental Causes of Eating Disorders

While most people with eating disorders are born with the genetic potential to develop these conditions, it’s often an outside event or series of experiences that triggers these genes, and unlocks their connection to disordered eating behaviors.

Eating disorders almost always manifest as maladaptive coping mechanisms. As such, trauma—or the lasting physical and emotional response that results from living through a highly stressful event—is one of the leading contributors to disordered eating behaviors.

Studies have found that the vast majority of people with eating disorders experienced histories of interpersonal trauma, with those struggling with bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder especially likely to have a history of trauma or co-occurring post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). [8]

Sociocultural factors can play a large role in the likelihood of developing an eating disorder.

Evidence has shown that individuals living in Western cultures, such as the United States and Europe, are considerably more likely to develop an eating disorder than those from Eastern cultures. [9] This can stem from several major differences in the regions, including differing beauty ideals and emphasis on physical attractiveness. 

Exposure to the media can also influence the risk of developing an eating disorder.

Traditional media, and its perpetuation of unrealistic beauty standards, has long been linked to factors like low self-esteem and poor body image. [10] But the rise of social media has only added to the proliferation of these ideals, along with the rapid spread of misinformed and potentially dangerous ideas associated with diet culture.

The classic understanding of where eating disorders come from still holds in some ways. The kinds of eating behaviors people see in both peers and parents or other caretakers can play a role in shaping their own relationship with food.

Studies have linked both peer pressure and disordered behaviors modeled at home to a higher risk of developing eating disorder symptoms. [3, 11] And being bullied over issues like weight or appearance can also lead to a number of issues connected to a higher potential of developing eating disorders, including lower self esteem, distorted body image, depression, anxiety, and PTSD.

Finding Help for Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are serious mental health illnesses with potentially deadly consequences if left untreated. If you or a loved one are struggling with an eating disorder, it’s imperative to seek out help.

Your therapist, psychiatrist, primary care physician, or another trusted medical professional is a great place to start. These experts are generally versed in a number of different eating disorders and may be able to help point you in the direction of the most useful treatment or recovery program.

If you’d prefer not to discuss such a sensitive issue face-to-face with someone, you can utilize several mental health and eating disorder hotlines. These services provide additional information and resources about eating disorders and recovery options while allowing callers to remain anonymous.

Regardless of where you look for help, however, the most important part of the process is starting. Reaching out to a professional can be the first step on the journey toward recovery and a happier and healthier future.


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  2. Silverstone PH. (1992). Is chronic low self-esteem the cause of eating disorders? Medical Hypotheses; 39(4):311–315.
  3. Berrettini W. (2004). The genetics of eating disorders. Psychiatry; 1(3):18–25.
  4. Genetic Risk Factor for Binge Eating Discovered. (2016, October 26). Boston University Chobonian & Avedisian School of Medicine. Accessed April 2023. 
  5. Klump KL, & Culbert KM. (2007). Molecular Genetic Studies of Eating Disorders: Current Status and Future Directions. Current Directions in Psychological Science; 16(1):37–41.
  6. Wade T, Bulik C, Heath AC, Martin N, Eaves L. (2012). The Influence of Genetic and Environmental Factors in Estimations of Current Body Size, Desired Body Size, and Body Dissatisfaction. Twin Research and Human Genetics; 4(4):260-265.
  7. Frank GK. (2013). Altered brain reward circuits in eating disorders: chicken or egg? Current Psychiatry Reports; 15(10):396.
  8. Mitchell K, Mazzeo S, Schlesinger M, Brewerton T, Smith B. (2011). Comorbidity of partial and subthreshold ptsd among men and women with eating disorders in the national comorbidity survey-replication study. International Journal of Eating Disorders; 45(3):307-315.
  9. Makino M, Tsuboi K, & Dennerstein L. (2004). Prevalence of eating disorders: a comparison of Western and non-Western countries. Medscape general medicine; 6(3):49. 
  10. Morris AM, & Katzman DK. (2003). The impact of the media on eating disorders in children and adolescents. Paediatrics & Child Health; 8(5):287–289.
  11. Al-sheyab N, Gharaibeh T, Kheirallah K. (2018). Relationship between Peer Pressure and Risk of Eating Disorders among Adolescents in Jordan. Journal of Obesity; 2018(7309878):8.

Last Update | 04 - 27 - 2023

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