What Causes Eating Disorders in Women?

Medically Reviewed on 7/27/2021
what causes eating disorders in women
Eating disorders are common, especially among women. Learn about what causes eating disorders and how they can be treated

Eating disorders are often caused by a complex combination of genetic, psychological, and environmental factors. While they can affect anyone, the majority of people suffering from eating disorders are women. Each woman is unique, and it can be hard to pinpoint just one cause for an eating disorder. Factors may include:

Eating disorders most commonly develop during adolescence and early adulthood, although they can develop later in life as well.

What are different types of eating disorders?

Eating disorders often take various forms and are difficult to treat. But learning about symptoms of each type can help you recognize them.

Anorexia nervosa

Anorexia is essentially self-starvation, characterized by a preoccupation with dieting and losing weight to the point of malnourishment. Women with this condition may become obsessed with their weight, convinced that they are overweight. Anorexia can cause:

Bulimia nervosa

Bulimia is characterized by binging on large quantities of food, followed by guilt or shame, then purging or forced vomiting to compensate for overeating. Some people with this disorder use laxatives or enemas to get rid of excess calories. People with bulimia often suffer from:

Binge eating disorder

While similar to bulimia in terms of binging, people with this disorder do not force themselves to vomit. Many can differentiate between physical hunger and emotional eating, and may end up eating to the point of discomfort as well as experience feelings of guilt and depression about the binge session. This behavior may result in significant weight gain.

What are potential treatment options for eating disorders?

While a high-quality treatment program that specializes in eating disorders offers the best chances for long-term successful recovery, the exact mode of treatment will depend on both the type of eating disorder and the person.

Psychotherapy

  • Also known as talk therapy, psychotherapy helps you identify self-destructive patterns of thought and behavior and replace them with healthier ones. 
  • Through cognitive behavioral therapy, you explore the complex issues underlying an eating disorder and learn how to identify and control your mood as well as monitor your eating. You also develop an arsenal of skills, techniques, and strategies to cope with triggers such as stress.
  • Family therapy may also be used to address dysfunction in the family and educate family members about eating disorders and how they can provide support throughout the recovery process.

Nutrition education

  • Repairing the damage done by an eating disorder and maintaining a healthy weight is one of the primary goals of recovery.
  • Dietitians and other healthcare professionals design an eating plan to help you achieve and maintain a healthy weight and develop normal eating habits.

Medications

  • While no medication can cure an eating disorder, some may help curb food cravings and control urges to binge or purge.
  • If a mental illness such as anxiety or depression is one of the underlying causes of the eating disorder, medication will likely be prescribed to help manage it.

Hospitalization

  • In cases of severe malnutrition or other serious health problems related to an eating disorder, hospitalization may be required.
  • An inpatient treatment program can help restore health and may include intensive therapy to address complex issues behind the disorder and any mental health problems that may have contributed to it.

If left untreated, eating disorders can cause serious damage to both mind and body. Recovering from an eating disorder is a lifelong battle, but it can be done with patience and a strong support network.

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Medically Reviewed on 7/27/2021
References
HealthyWomen. Eating Disorders. https://www.healthywomen.org/condition/eating-disorders

Sharan P, Sundar AS. Eating Disorders in Women. Indian J Psychiatry. 2015;57(Suppl 2):S286-S295. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4539873/

Center for Young Women's Health. Eating Disorders: Causes and Risk Factors. https://youngwomenshealth.org/2014/08/07/eating-disorders-causes-and-risk-factors/