Common Factors That Propel an Eating Disorder

Some factors commonly found among eating disordered individuals are the same as many other mental health disorders. While there is no template to point toward the tendencies that may lie latent for young people, there are many benchmarks to look for.

Genetic or Family Traits

Research studies among family members, along with those conducted on siblings, especially twins, and those who are placed for adoption have shown strong links between lineage and developing eating disorders. According to these studies, anyone with a family history of eating disorders is 7 to 12 times more likely to develop one compared to those whose family members do not.

The investigation, however, does not show family roles or structure, to be the direct cause of eating disorders. Therefore, experts do not support the implementation of any particular parenting style, nor the belief that family dynamics cause eating disorders.

Nonetheless, family involvement is the key for early intervention of a developing eating disorder behavior. Family therapy is also seen as a positive and substantial puzzle piece when it comes to the founding a strong support system for eating disorder treatments.

Personality Traits

Many of the recognized personality traits and behaviors common to eating disorders are heritable, such as the following:

  • Perfectionism
  • Rigid thinking patterns; persistence and determination
  • Compulsive and impulsive attitudes and behaviors
  • Avoidance of consequences; focus on either punishment or reward
  • Emotionally unstable and hypersensitive to the point of neurosis
  • Ruminating (obsessive) thinking patterns
  • Precise thinking and attention to detail

Remember that not all of these factors may be present; and not all children who show these symptoms will develop eating disorders. Some of these traits are recognized in other mental health arenas, as well.

Everyone shows a certain amount of anxiety around food, especially when they have experienced any perceived starvation or deprivation at early stages of childhood development. Triggering this response becomes more problematic once the person perceives hunger pangs as symptoms of possible starvation.


There is behavior evidence that suggest the gyrus rectus, the area of the brain that controls hunger or appetite regulation, plays a role in the development or presence of eating disorders.

Meanwhile, the insular cortex, an area deep within the brain that tells us we’ve tasted something pleasurable, is shown to be affected by eating disorders. In anorexic persons, the brain’s right insula becomes enlarged. Those who suffer from bulimia, on the other hand, show an enlarged left insula.

The insular cortex is also responsible for integrating our body image and the sensation of pain. Because the pain threshold is so closely linked to appetite, this factor is recognized as being present in the formation of early childhood eating patterns.

History of Trauma

Many people with eating disorders have backgrounds of physical or sexual abuse, along with strong feelings of shame, guilt and distorted body image.

Typically, they feel lack of control in their lives and the desire to exhibit feelings of control over their emotional well-being can be focused on controlling what and how much food they eat or overeat. They also exhibit a strong desire to deal with emotions that have no connection to their day-to-day existence since these feelings stem primarily from early abuse patterns.

Trauma often manifests into ongoing anxiety and the coping skills they need to deal with the problem during its later stages do not fully develop. Their inability to deal with trauma is due to their lack of resolution for what happened and the gravity of emotional impact it had on them. Keep in mind that these symptoms may also be found in trauma victims who do not exhibit eating disorders.

The symptoms mentioned above may also be found in trauma victims who do not exhibit eating disorders. In cases of eating disordered behavior, however, treating the underlying traumas which resulted in the disorder will often allow the individual to heal enough to work through their issues, and deal with other addictions.

Cultural Factors

Excessive focus on body weight and image is common with all forms of eating disorders. In Western cultures, especially, those in the public eye are heavily invested in images of thin and unhealthy body weights. The following information shows the unhealthy factors that fuel eating disordered individuals.

  • 80 percent of women who answered a magazine survey responded that images of women on television and in the movies make them feel insecure.
  • Two out of five women and one out five men would trade three to five years of their life to achieve their weight goals.
  • In one study, three out of four women stated that they were overweight although only one out of four actually were.
  • In 1970, the average age a girl started dieting was 14; by 1990, the average dropped to 8.
  • A study asked children to assign attractiveness values to pictures of children with various disabilities. The participants rated the obese child less attractive than a child in a wheelchair, a child with a facial deformity and, a child with a missing limb.
  • The dieting industry is the only business in the world that has a 98% failure rate.
  • One half of fourth grade girls are on a diet.
  • The average US woman is 5’4” and weighs 140 pounds. In contrast, the average American model is 5’11” and weighs 117 pounds.
  • 51 percent of nine and ten-year-old girls stated they felt better about themselves when they were adhering to a diet.
  • One out of three women and one out of four men are on a diet at any given time.
  • 81 percent of 10-year-old girls are afraid of being fat.
  • A study found that adolescent girls were more fearful of gaining weight than getting cancer, nuclear war or losing their parents.
  • A study found that 25% of Playboy centerfolds met the weight criteria for anorexia.
  • Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of all mental illnesses. The mortality rate for eating disorders is approximately 18 percent in 20-year studies and 20 percent in 30-year follow up studies.
  • 52 percent of girls begin dieting before the age of 14.
  • Eating disorders cross racial, economic and educational boundaries.

Kelly McClanahan has an MSW in clinical social work and a CATC IV in addictions counseling. She teaches meditation and mindfulness, specializing in addiction and trauma. She also leads workshops and seminars on treatment of addictive disorders and stress reduction.

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