Don’t Oversimplify the Cause of Eating Disorders

Common Misunderstandings about the Cause of an Eating Disorder Dismiss Important Factors

We humans can be a simple-minded breed. In order to make sense of difficult or challenging issues in our lives we seek ways to make quick and easy assessments, avoiding the work involved in plumbing the layers of complexity to get to the real root of a problem. This tendency to find a simple explanation for a serious condition applies all too often when trying to understand eating disorders. When a loved one is in the grips of an eating disorder, there is a desire to explain it away. The usual default most people turn to is that he or she is so obsessed with emulating the svelte, toned bodies of their favorite celebrities that they are willing to starve themselves to look like them. Or, that the images they have grown up with—the Barbie dolls with the microscopic waistlines, the emaciated fashion models teetering on the brink of collapse on the catwalk, or overly airbrushed images in the print media—are what’s really to blame for the unhealthy desire to be stick thin. No one wants to face the music, to dig below the trite superficial reasons for disordered eating and expose the often-complicated psychological underpinnings to the disorder. Why is that? It’s because looking under the hood may reveal damage that is unsettling and difficult to accept—like ignoring a funny sound your car is making thinking it’s just in need of a simple tune-up, when in reality the transmission is going out. Who wants to deal with that?

The BioPsychoSocial Roots of an Eating Disorder

The harsh reality is that deep psychological disorders, personality traits, or even genetics can be the causes of a serious mental health condition manifesting itself in disordered eating habits. Addressing these uncomfortable possibilities is difficult for the parents, spouses, or friends of the person suffering from an ED. There may be feelings of guilt, shame, or confusion after uncovering the painful truths that may be at the root of their loved one’s problem; it is much easier to simply blame the media or culture for it. The different types of eating disorders (anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder) each have their own unique set of factors that may have contributed to the ED. For instance, someone with anorexia may be a perfectionist where someone with bulimia may have an impulsive nature. Some common underlying factors across the ED spectrum may include:

– Anxiety and/or depression
– Sensitivity to reward and punishment
– Excessive persistence (especial in anorexia nervosa)
– Perfectionism
– Sense of having no control over one’s life
– Coping skill deficits
– Trauma, such as physical or sexual abuse or the death of a loved one
– General feelings of inadequacy
– Genetic predisposition if close family members have ED
– Altered brain circuitry in anterior insula, striatal region, and anterior ventral striatal pathways
– Disruption in serotonin pathway
– Low self-esteem
– Family dysfunction or disruption such as divorce
– Impulsivity (especially in bulimia nervosa)

While it is true that an eating disorder results in the obsession with food, appearance, weight, and size, what drives the individual to become so obsessed is a complex and varied set of factors. If eating disorders were simply the result of a culture obsessed with thinness, why is it that only about 3% of the American public struggle with one? Wouldn’t the effects of the societal pressures to conform to an idealized physical size or shape affect everyone in the same way? Since this is not the case, it points to the certainty that the development of an eating disorder has its underpinnings in factors other than simply cultural influences.

Casa Serena can help

The compassionate professionals at Casa Serena are trained to identify which set of factors is contributing to an individual’s eating disorder. Understanding that the reasons are varied and unique to each individual, our program is successful because we get to the root cause of the disorder and will guide the individual to a path of recovery based on their own individualized treatment plan. At Casa Serena we place understand the importance of a support system, so family involvement is considered a key component in the individual’s long-term recovery. Call us today at (925) 682-8252

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