What causes an eating disorder?

Eating disorder causes are the subject of some of the biggest eating disorder myths going around. Many people still think that eating disorders are a choice or that the families are to blame for the eating disorder. Both of those myths couldn’t be further from the truth!

Eating disorders are mental illnesses. They are serious and affect an estimated one million Australians. That’s probably a higher number than you were expecting, isn’t it?

The truth is, there’s no single cause of an eating disorder. And not all eating disorders are caused by the same factors. We explain the factors that contribute to eating disorders so you can support and advocate for your loved one. 

Not all eating disorders are the same…

When people hear the word eating disorder, they often have quite a narrow understanding of what that is. That’s understandable if they haven’t been touched by eating disorders in their life. Public knowledge and understanding of what eating disorders are is quite low. Think about your own knowledge before your loved one’s diagnosis.

There are a number of different types of eating disorders. Some – such as Anorexia Nervosa or Bulimia Nervosa – are more commonly understood. For others – such as Binge Eating Disorder, OSFED or ARFID –  you would probably only know about them if you know someone with the disorder.

Yes, these are all eating disorders. They are all characterised by an unhealthy relationship with self, food, eating and, in some cases, body image. They are also extremely serious and debilitating, requiring medical treatment. But that’s where the similarities end.

… and neither are their causes

So, what causes an eating disorder? It’s usually a combination of social, biological and psychological factors that leads to an eating disorder. Co-existing conditions are common with eating disorders and can also be contributing factors. 

Some of the factors that may contribute to the development of an eating disorder include:

  • Media, family or peer pressure to look or eat a certain way
  • Traumatic life events such as the death of a close family member
  • Low self-esteem
  • Poor body image
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Pressure to achieve in other areas of life, such as academics
  • Participation in sports of activities that focus on body shape or weight
  • Other behaviours or mindsets such as perfectionism or impulsivity.
  • A choking incident or feeding based condition
  • Bullying
  • Significant weight loss, whether intentional, incidental or other.


Sometimes, the causes of an eating disorder might be obvious. Perhaps you can put your finger on the traumatic event that you think triggered the eating disorder. But that’s not always the case. It’s more than likely that a number of different factors built up over time and each contributed to the development of the eating disorder.

You may feel guilty or like you need to chase down the cause of your loved one’s eating disorder. That’s not helpful for you… or for them. Eating disorders can affect anyone. While they are very common in teenage girls, like other mental illnesses, eating disorders don’t discriminate against age, gender or ethnicity. 

Caring for the carers

Understanding what feelings, thought and emotions underline an eating disorder will hopefully help you to support your loved one. If they’re newly diagnosed or you are still seeking a diagnosis, it can feel like there’s a very long road ahead. But with the right treatment team and support, recovery from an eating disorder is possible.

At EDFA, we want to empower you in the process of advocating for your loved one. We’re here with practical tips and resources to ensure you can look after yourself while you’re in a caring role. 

Learn more about EDFA and discover a community of support that understands exactly what you’re going through.