What Causes Easting Disorders?

Dietary disorders such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia, and binge eating are troubling conditions that take an enormous physical toll. For most people, eating disorders are mysterious and confusing. Those who suffer are compelled to overeat or under-eat for reasons they don't quite understand. Parents with children who suffer an eating disorder are confused about the causes of the disorders.

Recent research has shed light on eating disorders. Studies indicate that several important factors come into play. Awareness of these factors can help prevent or manage devastating eating disorders.

Biological Factors
Biological factors that contribute to eating disorders include genetics, heredity, and brain chemistry. The following are some recent findings:

Genetics -- Genetic factors cause some people to be more prone to anxiety and obsessive-compulsive behaviors. Such individuals seem more prone to developing eating disorders.

Family history -- Females with a mother or sister who had an eating disorder are more likely to develop a problem.

Brain chemistry -- Starving, overeating, and purging can activate brain chemicals that produce feelings of peace and dispel anxiety. These feelings reinforce the behaviors.

Stress and overeating -- Research suggests a biological link between stress and the need to overeat.

Psychological Factors
People with eating disorders tend to be perfectionists with unrealistic expectations of themselves. They tend to feel inadequate, and they see the world in black and white:

Fat is bad and thin is good -- and if thin is good, then "thinnest" is the best.

In addition, some people with eating disorders:

* Use the behaviors to avoid sexuality or try to and take more control of their lives.
* Often lack a strong sense of identity.
* Can't express anger in healthy ways and compensate by starving or overeating.

Family Factors
Some people with eating disorders come from overprotective families. Their parents might place too much importance on physical appearance or have high expectations of achievement and success. A mother who nags her daughter about her weight can drive the child into an anorexic lifestyle.

Experts say that the seeds of eating disorders can be planted as early as infancy. Parenting patterns that can later lead to trouble include irregular feeding schedules and using food as rewards and punishments.

Social Factors
Peer group and relationship pressures can encourage eating disorders. A young person may feel pressured to lose weight by a romantic partner or friends who are overly concerned about their own appearance. Extracurricular activities can even encourage eating disorders -- especially for girls who join sororities, sports teams, and dance groups, where physical appearance is considered important.

In the United States, popular culture instills in females unrealistic expectations about physical perfection. The media constantly delivers the unhealthy message that if you're not youthful, thin, and beautiful, you're not happy.

Easting disorders can easily be set off by "trigger events." A trigger could be something as seemingly harmless as being teased, or it could be a major trauma such as incest or rape. Other common triggers include:

* Life transitions such as puberty, a new job, a death in the family, marriage or divorce.
* Early sexual maturity, as in girls who mature earlier than their peers may think the
physical changes mean they are getting fat.
* Illnesses, as in people with conditions such as diabetes can become obsessive about their
* Dieting is the most common trigger of all, as most eating disorders begin with a diet
designed to lose weight.

-- Dan Harvey
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