Causes of Teen Eating Disorders

There are many causes of teen eating disorders. This eating disorder article looks at such causes as genetic and biological factors, societal factors, family issues, and personal factors. Also, a brief look at some complications of teen eating disorders.

The development of eating disorders is a complex and - the researchers admit - incompletely understood area. But it can be said that, when speaking about true eating disorders, explanations like poor habits or vanity that “blame the victim” are insufficient to explain the causes of teen eating disorders. Here is a summary of what is currently known:

Causes of Teen Eating Disorders and Related Issues

When the causes of teen eating disorders is not clear, it’s difficult to separate causal relationships from correlations, so they are grouped together here.

  • Genetic Factors

Genetic factors are being explored in explaining patients’ susceptibility to anorexia nervosa. A 2006 twin study implicated familial tendency in more than half the cases of anorexia nervosa, and concluded that development of the disorder arises from a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Binge eating disorder (BED) also seems to run in families.

  • Biological Factors

For anorexia nervosa, hypothalamus dysfunction leading to metabolic issues is being considered as a factor. Brain chemistry and metabolism’s roles in BED is also being researched. Some researchers focus on the addictive elements in eating disorders, and predisposition for addiction may be involved.

Certain situations or disorders can increase the likelihood of an eating disorder developing. Some women develop binge-eating during pregnancy. Young women with ADHD are at greater risk for developing an eating disorder, possibly because of their tendency towards impulsive behavior. It has recently been discovered that the majority of patients who have narcolepsy or cataplexy (once characterized simply as sleep disorders) have eating disorder symptoms, due to the same alterations in brain chemistry that cause them to sleep at inappropriate times.

  • Societal Factors

The availability of sufficient food creates a condition in which weight is more a matter of choice and overeating is more possible than it is when society as a whole is barely scraping by. Add to this both society’s fascination with exercise and its fascination with thinness, both of which have been linked to low self-esteem (which is linked to developing eating disorders) as well as directly to the increase in eating disorders, specifically anorexia nervosa. and bulimia nervosa - and a breeding ground for food obsession has been created.

In a society in which athletes are placed on a pedestal, athletes whose sports focus on weight and body shape - such as gymnasts, cheerleaders, ballet dancers, figure skaters, distance runners, divers, rowers and scullers, body builders, and wrestlers - are specifically at risk for eating disorders, as are any people who exercise to extreme for whatever reason.

There are also findings that indicate that eating disorders spread through what is called “social contagion” - contact with people who have an eating disorder could spread that disorder if it involved severe restriction on food intake, or purging methods, creating clusters of cases (clusters of bingers were not found).

Some people with eating disorders have found inspiration, advice, methods, and encouragement for their behaviors directly from others, from Internet support groups, or even from articles or television shows intended to expose eating disorders as problematic and encourage people to get help.

  • Family Issues

Some experts are of the opinion that for some people with eating disorders, the pressure to achieve a certain physical appearance comes from within their family rather than society at large. In addition, dysfunctional family conditions have also been linked with eating disorders. In a more direct connection, bulimics have reported learning about purging from witnessing family or friends.

  • Personal Factors - Attitudes and Conditions

With anorexia nervosa, some believe that perfectionism may be a factor: when the perfectionist fails to achieve his or her ambitions, s/he seeks some aspect of life over which s/he can exercise full control, and food and weight become his or her focus. Low self-esteem is connected to eating disorders in general.

An inappropriate sense of one’s own body is another frequently found factor. Binge eaters often eat in response to emotional overload, whether they are angry, sad, worried, depressed, anxious, or stressed. Based on the estimate that at any particular time, about 40 - 50% of American women are dieting, it is also speculated that feelings of deprivation may be a strong factor in prompting binges. Previously failed attempts at dieting are also common before the onset of an eating disorder.

About half of those who have binge eating disorder (BED) have or have had depression, but the exact relationship between the two is not clear. The fact is, depression is linked - though we’re not exactly sure how - with eating disorders in general. People with BED are also more likely to exhibit impulsive behavior than the general population, and are more likely to abuse alcohol and feel out-of-control, isolated, or disconnected from their own feelings.


Anorexia nervosa has a number of physical complications, including:

  • low blood pressure
  • constipation
  • anemia
  • dry, flaking skin
  • lanugo (soft hair growth on the face, back, and limbs
  • alopecia (loss of hair on the head)
  • brittle nails
  • osteoporosis
  • tooth decay and bad breath in patients who purge

In addition, anorexia nervosa has a number of very dangerous physical complications, mostly as the result of the effects of starvation, including malnutrition, electrolyte imbalance and cardiac arrest, not to mention the greatest danger - suicide.

  • Bulimia

The more problematic physical results include:

  • dental issues, including cavities and erosion of enamel (from vomiting)
  • pain in the salivary glands (from vomiting)
  • stomach and esophagus problems
  • arrhythmia
  • heart attack

Binge Eating Disorder Complications:

  • heart disease
  • high blood pressure
  • malnutrition
  • type 2 diabetes
  • depression
  • gallbladder disease
  • cancer


Related Article: Myths About Eating Disorders >>