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HealthInfo Canterbury

What causes an eating disorder?

It's impossible to identify exactly what causes anyone's eating disorder, as we're 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 particularly affect girls and women. Sometimes it's difficult to recognise these messages as damaging, and easy to accept them as the truth.

Girls are beginning to diet earlier and earlier. The diet and fashion industries are multibillion-dollar industries. They spread the messages that by losing weight and becoming slim, you'll be happy, healthy, successful in work and love, and all your problems will be solved.

Boys and men are increasingly being affected by similar messages about masculinity and body image.

Family factors

The term "family factors" means what your family and home environment are like when you're growing up.

Some of the family factors are genetic (people inherit them from their parents) and some are caused by the environment. New evidence suggests that some people with anorexia may have inherited a gene from their parents that makes more sensitive to environmental factors in their home life. Other members of their family may also have this gene.

Not every person with an eating disorder can identify specific family factors that may have contributed to their eating disorder.

Personal factors

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

On the next page: Dieting makes you binge

Written by the South Island Eating Disorders Service, Canterbury DHB. Adapted by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Last reviewed December 2017.


Page reference: 76269

Review key: HIEDI-73561