Exploring Common Eating Disorders and Their Causes

Because the adolescent and young adult years are often tumultuous with many physical and environmental changes happening all at once, eating disorders are common issues that families across America must face. Caused by a complex combination of factors, it can also be difficult to properly identify the symptoms of common eating disorders. This is one of the biggest reasons why it is important to seek the advice of a medical professional if an eating disorder is suspected. However, certain factors are common to virtually every kind of eating disorder, and treatment professionals are capable of addressing them.

First, let’s go over some common eating disorders and what they entail. Please note that “atypical” forms of these disorders and less-frequent disorders such as pica are not included in this list, although they can be serious. As with any mental health condition, the most important thing to do is seek out professional help from an expert right away if there are signs of disordered eating, exercising, or body image. Below are the clinical symptoms of these major eating disorders (all definitions in italics are from the DSM-V):

Anorexia Nervosa

  1. Restriction of energy intake relative to requirements, leading to a significantly low body weight in the context of age, sex, developmental trajectory, and physical health (less than minimally normal/expected).
  2. Intense fear of gaining weight or becoming fat or persistent behavior that interferes with weight gain.
  3. Disturbed by one’s body weight or shape, self-worth influenced by body weight or shape, or persistent lack of recognition of the seriousness of low body weight.

Anorexia nervosa is the archetypal eating disorder; it’s what most people think of when they hear the term. In both the primary and atypical form (in which the individual does not become medically underweight but shows all the other signs), anorexia nervosa is a dangerous condition that can cause severe health consequences. Sufferers will often feel uncomfortable at meals, wear baggy clothes to hide their weight loss, exercise excessively, and experience distorted body image that makes them feel overweight even as their lack of nutrition becomes problematic.

Bulimia Nervosa

  1. Recurrent episodes of binge eating, as characterized by both:
  2. Eating, within any 2-hour period, an amount of food that is definitively larger than what most individuals would eat in a similar period of time under similar circumstances.
  3. A feeling that one cannot stop eating or control what or how much one is eating.
  4. Recurrent inappropriate compensatory behaviors in order to prevent weight gain such as self-induced vomiting; misuse of laxatives, diuretics, or other medications; fasting or excessive exercise.
  5. The binge eating and inappropriate compensatory behaviors occur, on average, at least once a week for 3 months.

Unlike anorexia nervosa, people with bulimia nervosa are often of a “normal” weight or overweight, despite frequent dieting and purging behaviors. This is because people with bulimia nervosa frequently engage in binge eating, unlike purging disorder. Signs of bulimia nervosa include frequent trips to the bathroom, especially after meals, callouses on the knuckles, and dental issues. Bulimia nervosa also brings with it a distorted body image or self-criticism.

Binge Eating Disorder

  1. Recurrent episodes of binge eating. An episode of binge eating is characterized by both of the following:
  2. Eating, in a discrete period of time (e.g., within any 2-hour period), an amount of food that is definitely larger than most people would eat in a similar period of time under similar circumstances
  3. The sense of lack of control over eating during the episode (e.g., a feeling that one cannot stop eating or control what or how much one is eating)
  4. Binge-eating episodes are associated with three (or more) of the following:
  5. Eating much more rapidly than normal
  6. Eating until feeling uncomfortably full
  7. Eating large amounts of food when not feeling physically hungry
  8. Eating alone because of being embarrassed by how much one is eating
  9. Feeling disgusted with oneself, depressed, or very guilty after overeating
  10. Marked distress regarding binge eating is present.

Despite not fitting the stereotypes, this is actually the most common eating disorder in the United States. Weight loss is not common with binge eating disorder; frequent binging without compensatory purging leads to weight gain. However, binge eating disorder can have severe health consequences associated with obesity. It also causes or is triggered by other mental health conditions such as major depression and anxiety disorder. People with binge eating disorder are at higher risk for suicide and substance abuse than the general public.

ARFID (avoidant restrictive food intake disorder)

  1. An eating or feeding disturbance (e.g., apparent lack of interest in eating or food; avoidance based on the sensory characteristics of food; concern about aversive consequences of eating) as manifested by persistent failure to meet appropriate nutritional and/or energy needs associated with one (or more) of the following:
  2. Significant weight loss (or failure to achieve expected weight gain or faltering growth in children)
  3. Significant nutritional deficiency.
  4. Dependence on enteral feeding or oral nutritional supplements.
  5. Marked interference with psychosocial functioning.
  6. The disturbance is not better explained by lack of available food or by an associated culturally sanctioned practice.
  7. The eating disturbance does not occur exclusively during the course of anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa, and there is no evidence of a disturbance in the way in which one’s body weight or shape is experienced
  8. The eating disturbance is not attributable to a concurrent medical condition or not better explained by another mental disorder. When the eating disturbance occurs in the context of another mental disorder, the severity of the eating disturbance exceeds that routinely associated with the condition or disorder and warrants additional clinical attention.

Unlike most other eating disorders, ARFID is not triggered by a poor body image or desire to lose weight, although it can cause extreme weight loss. People with ARFID will avoid certain foods or food groups to the point that it begins to affect their health. The reasons for avoiding the “fear foods” can stem from a negative childhood experience like choking or getting food poisoning – both are common fears cited by ARFID sufferers. Extreme discomfort at meals where the avoided foods are present is the major symptom of ARFID; it can directly affect a person’s social life.

Why Do People Develop Eating Disorders?

Eating disorders are much more common than people assume. As many of 30 million people are thought to suffer from an eating disorder in their lives in the United States alone. Most people first develop the early signs of eating disorders in their early teen years, and the first age of onset ranges from this age to the early adult years. Unfortunately, due to television and film portrayals of people with common eating disorders like anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, many parents and loved ones have misconceptions about what causes these serious mental health disorders to develop.

The fact of the matter is that eating disorders can develop due to a wide variety of different factors. Researchers believe that eating disorders most often develop due to a combination of genetic, psychological, cultural, biochemical, and environmental factors. While this can make it more difficult to pinpoint the specifics behind the cause of eating disorders, the available information that we do have makes it much easier to identify those who may be more susceptible to developing an eating disorder.


Genetics may predispose some teens to develop eating disorders over their peers. Research shows that eating disorders can run in families and if a parent has previously had or currently has an eating disorder, their children are more likely to have a similar condition. Additionally, identical twins are more likely to have an eating disorder versus fraternal twins or other siblings.


Many psychological factors can contribute to eating disorders in adolescence. Eating disorder counseling is often used to treat those who also deal with symptoms of depression, anxiety, insomnia, and other co-occurring disorders. Some other common psychological signs of eating disorders include:

  • Perfectionism
  • Low self-esteem
  • Impulsivity
  • Difficulties coping in stressful situations or expressing emotions
  • Feelings of inadequacy and hopelessness
  • Negative body image


Environmental factors can also play a huge role in the development of eating disorders. Common environmental factors of the development of eating disorders include:

  • Trauma including physical or sexual abuse
  • Peer pressure
  • Family or romantic relationship problems
  • Bullying
  • A difficult childhood
  • Participation in certain activities that may focus on weight and body image. These may include wrestling, gymnastics, modeling, running, and dancing.

Eating Disorder Counseling Is Available

If you or a loved one suspects that there are signs of an eating disorder, it’s important to seek medical advice as soon as possible. With the help of comprehensive eating disorder counseling, long-term recovery is possible. At our treatment center for eating disorders, we provide the highest level of medical and psychiatric care outside of a hospital setting. Our goal is to help clients and their families discover the tools they need to work through their eating disorders in a safe and comfortable setting.

Have you or a loved one recently been diagnosed with an eating disorder? Reach out by phone or contact our admissions specialists online today for more information on the comprehensive eating disorder treatment services we offer.

With 20 years of behavioral health business development experience, Carrie combines world-class marketing, media, public relations, outreach and business development with a deep understanding of client care and treatment. Her contributions to the world of behavioral health business development – and particularly eating disorder treatment – go beyond simple marketing; she has actively developed leaders for her organizations and for the industry at large.