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What Causes Anorexia?

Anorexia is a bio-psycho-social illness, meaning that biological, psychological and sociocultural aspects contribute to the development of the illness. This means that anorexia – or any eating disorder, for that matter – is not a choice. There are clear causes of anorexia that individuals need to be aware of.


From a biological standpoint, eating disorders are familial illnesses with significant genetic components. Research has found that you have a greater chance of developing an eating disorder if an immediate relative of yours has one as well.

It is believed that temperament — an unchanging set of personality traits — is also inherited, underscoring the familial aspect of these illnesses.

Psychological indicators

From a psychological standpoint, eating disorder sufferers tend to share thoughts, feelings and views of the world that support the development and maintenance of anorexia symptoms. They tend to be perfectionistic and high achieving, which propels their obsessive behaviors to be the “best dieter,” and not just thinner but the “thinnest.”

Low self-directedness drives behaviors that conflict with longstanding values and beliefs. A desire to avoid harm and conflict drives secrecy and hidden behaviors. For example, people with anorexia will often present a “healthy” version of themselves to keep friends and loved ones happy and avoid difficult conversations about weight, eating and exercise concerns.

Sadly, sufferers struggle to see the “big picture,” not understanding how their restriction, exercise and rituals around food and eating are affecting their health, relationships and success. Their inflexibility supports rigid adherence to calorie counting, exercise frequency and food rituals, even at the expense of commitments and relationships. They are bound by rules, however illogical.

Sociocultural pressures

It’s very common for a patient suffering from anorexia to believe thoughts like “I have to exercise every day or I’ll be fat” or “If I eat this cookie I will see it on my thighs.” Unfortunately, many of today's cultures encourage thinness as the standard for beauty and success; "fat" bodies are stigmatized.

  • Anorexia is all but glorified by models and celebrities, diet trends and exercise programs.

  • Unattainable and unrealistic messages of beauty and body image grace pages of magazines.

  • These thinner body tpes serve as the basis of most TV programs and films.

  • We are bombarded by countless articles and news segments with tips on how to lose weight and eat healthy.

  • Even companies and schools have implemented “wellness programs” rooted in diet and exercise recommendations.

These pressures can adversely affect everyone, especially the sensitive, perfectionistic individuals at highest risk for developing anorexia.

Anorexia is a complex illness with many causes

These bio-psycho-social causes of anorexia make it an incredibly complex illness. However, with anorexia, a full recovery is possible. Anorexia treatment requires a specialized, multidisciplinary team who provide medical, nutritional and psychological support to patients.

If you think that you or a loved one needs help, please take our short anorexia self-assessment or call us at 877-825-8584 to schedule a free confidential consultation with an Eating Recovery Center Masters-level clinician.

Eating Recovery Center and Pathlight Mood and Anxiety Center are accredited through the Joint Commission. This organization seeks to enhance the lives of the persons served in healthcare settings through a consultative accreditation process emphasizing quality, value and optimal outcomes of services.

Organizations that earn the Gold Seal of Approval™ have met or exceeded The Joint Commission’s rigorous performance standards to obtain this distinctive and internationally recognized accreditation. Learn more about this accreditation here.

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