Susceptibility to Eating Disorders: What Does Research Tell Us?

Contributor: Crystal Karges, MS, RDN, IBCLC, Special Projects Coordinator at Eating Disorder Hope/Addiction Hope

woman-doctor-and-patient-blood-pressureThe understanding of eating disorders and how these psychiatric illness develop has evolved and progressed thanks to the research within this field. Though many misconceptions, stigmas, and stereotypes still cloud these diseases, greater clarity has helped break the misunderstandings that have too often surrounded eating disorders.

Perhaps some of the common misunderstandings of eating disorders lies in the development of these disorders and what makes an individual more likely to have these mental illnesses.

Shedding a Light on Biology

While many factors contribute the development of an eating disorder, scientific research in the last few years has shed light on the role of biology. In fact, the biological influence on eating disorders is a strong component that likely predetermines if a person will in fact develop an eating disorder or not. Previous school of thought typically did not understand the biological factors that contributed to eating disorders and often focus on environmental triggers.

While the role of environmental triggers is not disputed, it is understood that this factor alone does not account for susceptibility to an eating disorder.

Many individuals suffer some form of trauma in their lifetime, but not everyone who is exposed to a traumatic experience develops an eating disorder. This reveals that an individual’s susceptibility to developing an eating disorder is based on multiple factors, not just environmental influences.

Predetermining Risk of an Eating Disorder

Girl in red dress sitting with teddybear on boardwalkResearch on the possible biological influences of eating disorders has revealed the role of genetics, neurobiology, personality traits and more. It has been observed that a person’s genetic makeup can predetermine risk of an eating disorder, including anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa.

In addition, neurobiology plays an important role in the susceptibility of eating disorders. Regions of the brain that control appetite, emotions, cognition, sensory control may be abnormal in the person who develops an eating disorder. Individuals who develop eating disorders also tend to have unique personality traits and characteristics that can also contribute to the likelihood of these psychiatric illnesses developing.

The Complex Combination of Factors

The complex combination of multiple factors, including biology, environment, psychological, cultural and more are what make a person susceptible to developing an eating disorder. Understanding this fact may help break much of the shame that often shrouds eating disorder sufferers.

The reality is that many factors that contribute to the development of eating disorders are not necessarily things that that can be prevented, such as the strong biological components. People do not chose to have any eating disorder, just as a person with cancer, heart disease, or diabetes would chose to have their diseases.

Looking at the Bigger Picture on Eating Disorder Development

Multiethnic Group of Teenagers Walking at ParkLooking at the grander picture in terms of how eating disorders develop and knowing what factors make individuals more susceptible to these mental illnesses not only gives a better understanding but enables more effective treatment approaches.

For the woman or man, child, adolescent, or adult who may be suffering, it is important to know that susceptibility to an eating disorder does not equal failure or weakness.

Being able to understand some of the possible factors that contributed to the disorder can help a person better address underlying issues that may be present, such as trauma, abuse, or co-occurring mental illnesses. While other factors cannot necessarily be changed or treated per say, such as genetics, neurobiology and personality traits, a person can learn how to better manage some aspects of themselves that may have exacerbated the eating disorder.

Asking for Help for an Eating Disorder

If you are suffering with an eating disorder, it may be difficult to ask for help and move forward with treatment without having all the answers. You may wonder how you got the place you have found yourself in or how your eating disorder developed in the first place.

Even without all the answers, treatment can help piece back together the many parts of your life that may have been destroyed by an eating disorder.

Community Discussion – Share your thoughts here!

In what ways do you think research has improved the understanding of eating disorders? How does the clearer understanding of eating disorders allow for better treatment methods and overall outcomes for those who might be suffering?

Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on July 31st, 2015
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