Causes of Eating Disorders

The development of an eating disorder is a complex process.  They can arise from a variety of influences including societal expectations, peers, media, parents, trauma, mental health concerns, etc. Individuals struggling with an eating disorder often have negative body image, poor self-esteem, or coexisting mental health concerns including anxiety and/or depression. Eating disorders affect both men and women and may contribute to physical, emotional, and mental health concerns. 

What are Eating Disorders?

Eating disorders are treatable conditions that affect one's physical, psychological, spiritual health, and body image. It is important to remember that you cannot tell whether someone has an eating disorder just by looking at them. There are three main types of eating disorders: 

Binge Eating Disorder (formerly known as compulsive eating) is characterized by recurrent and compulsive binge eating without the regular use of compensatory behaviors designed to counter over-eating. Individuals who struggle with BED may range from below-average weight to obese.

Bulimia Nervosa is a serious and potentially life-threatening eating disorder characterized by a cycle of binge eating followed by some means of purging. This cycle of bingeing and purging leads to drastic and often dangerous changes in one's body chemistry. Chemical imbalances can lead to a stroke and/or a heart attack, even when an individual is relatively young.

Anorexia Nervosa is a serious, potentially life-threatening eating disorder characterized by self-starvation and excessive weight-loss, usually 15 percent below one's "normal" or "recommended" body weight. Low body weight can lead to major medical complications including low blood pressure, irregular heart rhythms, kidney problems and chemical imbalances.

What Is Disordered Eating?

Disordered eating is used to describe a range of irregular eating behaviors that may or may not warrant a diagnosis of a specific eating disorder.

Eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, or binge eating disorder are diagnosed according to specific criteria. This excludes a majority of people suffering with disordered eating.

Disordered Eating vs. Eating Disorder

The most significant difference between an eating disorder and disordered eating is whether or not a person's symptoms and experiences align with the criteria defined by the American Psychiatric Association. Disordered eating is a descriptive phrase, not a diagnosis.  It is possible to have disordered eating patterns that do not fit within the current confines of an eating disorder diagnosis.

Still, eating concerns short of a diagnosis deserve attention and treatment as they could turn into more problematic eating disorders. This would put individuals at risk of serious health problems.  They can also have a significant negative impact on the individual’s quality of life due to preoccupation with food, weight and body image.

Signs and symptoms of disordered eating may include, but are not limited to:

  • Frequent dieting, anxiety associated with specific foods or meal skipping 
  • Chronic weight fluctuations
  • Rigid rituals and routines surrounding food and exercise
  • Feelings of guilt and shame associated with eating
  • A feeling of loss of control around food, including compulsive eating habits
  • Using exercise, food restriction, fasting or purging to "make up for bad foods" consumed

Harm Caused by Disordered Eating

Many people who suffer with disordered eating patterns either minimize or do not fully realize the impact it has on their mental and physical health. This lack of understanding may increase the harm of disordered eating. Consequences can include a greater risk of obesity, bone loss, gastrointestinal disturbances, electrolyte and fluid imbalances, low heart rate and blood pressure, increased anxiety, depression and social isolation.

Disordered eating is a serious health concern that may be difficult to detect. A person with disordered eating patterns may not display all of the classic symptoms typically identified with eating disorders. It's important to remember that even a person exhibiting disordered eating habits and behaviors may also be experiencing significant physical, emotional and mental stress.

Registered dietitian nutritionists are vital to the detection and treatment of disordered eating. Often, patients referred to dietitians for nutrition counseling are unaware that their eating patterns are problematic or harmful. Working with a dietitian who has a background in counseling patients with eating disorders is an important step in treating disordered eating and preventing it from progressing to an eating disorder. (National Eating Disorder Association)

Body Image

Body image can be defined as how you see and picture yourself, as well as what you believe about your own appearance. Many college students struggle with body image issues at some point. Maintaining a healthy body image can be a challenge for many college students, particularly because they are at a critical stage of self-assessment and identity development. Changes in weight or appearance, as well as societal influences and the impact of the media, may contribute to the development of a negative body image.  Eating and body image issues are often connected.

Developmental and social changes that may impact body image include many life transitions associated with beginning college, including:

  • Physical and emotional separation from family
  • Requirements for high academic performance (academic requirements may be prioritized above physical and emotional health)
  • Managing adult responsibilities independently
  • Learning to live with roommates
  • Managing significant relationships

Media, Body Image, and Eating Disorders:

The National Eating Disorders Association states:

Eating disorders are complex conditions that arise from a variety of factors, including physical, psychological, interpersonal and social issues.  Media images that help to create cultural definitions of beauty and attractiveness are often acknowledged as being among those factors contributing to the rise of eating disorders.

The American Medical Association Condemns photoshopping. 

In 2011, the AMA formally denounced retouching pictures and requested ad agencies to consider setting stricter guidelines for how photos are manipulated before becoming advertisements.  “We must stop exposing impressionable children and teenagers to advertisements portraying models with body types only attainable with the help of photo editing software,” said AMA board member Barbara McAnemy.

How to develop a healthy body image

Adapted from "BodyLove: Learning to Like Our Looks and Ourselves," by Rita Freeman, Ph.D.

  • Be realistic about the size you are likely to be based on your genetic and environmental history
  • Stay active (walking, dancing, yoga, etc.), regardless of your size
  • Expect normal weekly and monthly changes in weight and shape
  • Work towards self-acceptance and self-forgiveness; be gentle with yourself
  • Ask for support and encouragement from friends and family when life is stressful
  • Decide how you wish to spend your energy: pursuing the "perfect body" or enjoying family, friends, school and, most importantly, life

How would I know if I have an eating disorder?

Individuals struggling with eating problems may find that although their behaviors are not entirely healthy, they also do not fit neatly into the definition of an eating disorder. Providers at Sindecuse Health Center can help you assess your eating patterns and find support and treatment if needed.


The Renfrew Center Foundation has published some useful assessment tools. View these tools at their web page:


Eating disorder treatment is available and recovery is possible.

Regardless of how long you've struggled with eating issues or the severity of your eating disorder, the sooner you begin treatment, the better. The longer disordered eating patterns continue and the more deeply ingrained they become, the more challenging recovery may be.  Seek help if you think you or a friend might be struggling with eating problems.