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What can cause an eating disorder?

Eating disorders are complex illnesses caused by a combination of genetic, social and psychological factors. The factors can contribute to a range of disorders, including Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa and Binge Eating Disorder (BED).

Within this article, we will outline the common causes of eating disorders. It is important to note that eating disorders are not caused by a person facing one singular risk factor. Instead, when a person experiences a combination of the causes mentioned below, this can lead to the development of an eating disorder.

What are the risk factors that can cause eating disorders?

Genetics and family history

Family studies have shown that certain genotypes can cause people to be more at risk of developing an eating disorder.

People who have a family member with an eating disorder or food issues are also much more likely to develop the illness themselves. 


There has also been research demonstrating that eating disorders may be associated with specific personality traits. These characteristics include:

  • Obsessive thinking
  • Perfectionistic tendencies
  • Emotional instability
  • Low self-esteem

Childhood events

A traumatic or life-changing event during childhood can leave a person at risk of developing an eating disorder. Troubles within the family, such as conflicts, emotional abuse, parental divorce, unrealistic expectations and alcoholism in the home can all reduce a child’s self-worth, an issue at the heart of many eating disorders.


Societal pressures can contribute to a person developing an eating disorder. These can include:

  • Cultural glorification of thinness, where value is placed on obtaining the ‘perfect body’
  • Narrow definitions of beauty that only include specific body weights and shapes
  • Skewed beauty standards caused by photo editing software
  • Cultural norms that value people on physical appearance, not inner qualities and strengths

Involvement in a sport or industry where there is a heavy emphasis on a thin body shape can also increase the risk of a person developing an eating disorder. This can include ballet dancing, gymnastics or modelling.

Deficient coping skills

Some people do not know or use positive coping strategies when dealing with such emotions as stress, fear, anger and sadness. This inability may have been caused by their childhood. Eating disorders can become a way to respond to these negative emotions, acting as an unhealthy coping strategy which a person uses to manage their emotional pain.

Treating the causes of eating disorders

When someone is receiving treatment for an eating disorder, it is important that time is taken to identify and address the emotional issues and underlying causes that underpin the illness.

At Priory Group’s eating disorder treatment facilities throughout the UK, our specialists help people to recognise the factors that are contributing to their illness. Our teams work with people to help them learn healthy coping mechanisms and strategies so that they can achieve a full and sustainable recovery.

Reviewed by Rebecca Jennings (MSc ANutr), Dietician at Priory Arthur House  

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