These are common statements I’ve heard from people about why people have eating disorders and struggle in their relationship with food, and with their body. Although there may be some truth to each statement, they are oversimplified and don’t accurately identify the various reasons people develop eating disorders.
The root causes of eating disorders are many, just like the roots of a tree; there are some prominent roots, but there are also many smaller roots coming off of those main roots. It can also be described as a puzzle; each person’s “puzzle” is unique and each piece varies in size and shape. Some pieces are smaller, others are bigger, and we have to spend some time identifying the various pieces to the puzzle to figure out how to overcome the disorder. Let’s take a look at some of the main roots, or puzzle pieces, of an eating disorder.
Researchers have identified various biological factors that contribute to eating disorders. This is a tricky area to investigate, however, because one’s food behaviors (e.g., restricting, binge eating, purging, exercising) changes one’s biology, so it’s difficult to always tell if the biological factors caused the behaviors. Some of these factors include genetics, hormones, certain brain circuits and areas of the brain, and the microbiota (bacteria) in the gut, just to name a few.
There are also psychological factors that can be the roots to developing an eating disorder. Researchers have identified some personality characteristics common in those with eating disorders, including those who are highly sensitive, perfectionistic, people-pleasers, high achievers, and anxious or depressed. Additionally, those with eating disorders often have difficulty regulating and expressing emotions, feel a general lack of control, have low self-esteem and feel inadequate, and are highly self-critical. Many also struggle with other mental health disorders or symptoms, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and personality/relational disorders.
Interpersonal factors are another main root of eating disorders. Smaller roots that make up this larger root may include certain family functioning styles, social or romantic concerns, identity concerns (e.g., LGBTQ individuals), having been teased, bullied, or abused, traumatic life events, and/or major life changes, such as moving or the death of a loved one. Often times, the eating disorder behaviors are a way to cope with these various difficult personal life events, and actually work – short term – to get through.
One final roots of an eating disorder are factors that are present in the person’s culture or environment. It’s obvious we live in a very toxic culture when it comes to food and body. For example, our culture over-values thinness and praises people for weight loss, regardless of the unhealthy behaviors used to get there. What many people don’t know is that almost every eating disorder (even binge eating) starts with dieting.
I encourage you, as you or your loved one starts to explore the various roots to his/her unique eating disorder, not to oversimplify it. It’s a complex, multifaceted disorder, which is why recovery from this disorder can take a lot of time. Additionally, because of the various roots that can be contributing I often recommend someone work with a treatment team including a therapist, dietitian, and a medical professional, such as a physician and/or psychiatrist.
If you or someone you know needs support to start digging up these roots, Crosswinds can help. Get in touch with us, and start the recovery journey today.