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HealthInfo Canterbury

What causes an eating disorder?

It's impossible to identify exactly what causes an eating disorder for any individual woman, as we are all unique. However, there are three general groups of risk factors: sociocultural factors (things to do with society as a whole), family factors and personal or individual factors.

Sociocultural factors

These factors affect young girls and grown women. Girls are beginning to diet earlier and earlier. The diet and fashion industries are multibillion-dollar industries and spread the messages that by losing weight and becoming slim you will be happy, healthy, successful in work and love, and that all of your problems will be solved.

Family factors

Family factors refer to what your family and home environment were like when you were growing up. For example, women with eating disorders are more likely to have family members who have also had an eating disorder, or who have been depressed, or had alcohol problems. Some of the family factors are genetic (women inherit them from their parents) and some are caused by the environment. For example, a family history of an eating disorder, depression, or alcoholism may be partly genetic. But emotional, physical, and sexual abuse refer more to environmental factors. Not every woman with an eating disorder can identify specific family factors that may have contributed to her eating disorder.

Personal factors

In any person with an eating disorder, these personal factors interact with the social and family factors. It's impossible to pinpoint one single cause for bulimia or anorexia. However, by analysing these three areas we can get a better understanding of what led to the eating disorder.

Written by the South Island Eating Disorders Service. Adapted by HealthInfo clinical advisers, September 2013.


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Review key: HIEDI-73561