What Causes Anorexia?

woman struggling with anorexia

What Causes Anorexia?

According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, “9% of the U.S. population, or 28.8 million Americans, will have an eating disorder in their lifetime.”[1]

While many people have odd eating habits, eating disorders are defined by an overwhelming preoccupation with your body or an intense fear of gaining weight. Distinguishing between an eating disorder and irregular food-related habits comes down to how much it impacts your life. If you are experiencing food and body image issues that cause you to have a hard time functioning in your daily life, you may be suffering from an eating disorder.

Anorexia nervosa is one of the common forms of eating disorders that impact Americans daily. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that the lifetime prevalence of anorexia is 0.6%.[2] This mental health condition causes you to relentlessly pursue thinness, leading to a significant reduction in food intake and malnourishment.

But what causes people to become anorexic in the first place?

What is Anorexia?

Anorexia nervosa is a severe mental health condition that is characterized by an extreme reduction in food intake that leads to dangerously low body weight. When you suffer from this condition, you begin to reduce the amount of food you eat due to an intense fear of gaining weight, a relentless pursuit of thinness, and a distortion of body image. Many people with anorexia see themselves as overweight even when they are starved or severely malnourished.

While anorexia involves a preoccupation with avoiding eating food, this condition is not actually about the food itself. It is an extremely unhealthy and often life-threatening way to control your emotional issues. People with this condition often feel out of control and use their ability to limit their food intake and body weight to feel as if they have control over their lives.

There are two different types of anorexia: the restrictive and binge-purge subtypes.

The restrictive subtype of anorexia is the one you probably picture in your head. People with this subtype severely limit the amount and type of food they eat. This could include constantly being in a significant calorie deficit or refusing to eat anything at all.

The binge-purge subtype of anorexia causes people to restrict the amount of food they eat as well. However, individuals may also have binge-eating and purging episodes where they eat large amounts of food at one time and either vomit or use laxatives to get rid of what they consumed.

The Signs of Anorexia

Anorexia is characterized by a few key behaviors and symptoms. Being aware of the signs of anorexia can help you identify whether your loved one is suffering from this condition or not. If someone you know is struggling with anorexia, you must help them seek professional treatment.

The signs of anorexia include:[3]

  • Skipping meals
  • Pushing food around on a plate to make it seem like they ate something
  • Talking about being “fat” very often
  • Obsessive calorie counting
  • Excessive exercise
  • Extremely restricted eating
  • Extreme thinness
  • Intense fear of gaining weight
  • Denial of the seriousness of low body weight
  • Distorted body image that is heavily influenced by the perceptions of body weight and shape

Over time, the health consequences of anorexia can become extremely dangerous. Some of the serious health complications associated with this mental health condition include:

  • Thinning of the bones
  • Anemia
  • Muscle wasting and weakness
  • Brittle hair and nails
  • Dry and yellowish skin
  • Growth of thin hair all over the body
  • Severe constipation
  • Low blood pressure
  • Slowed breathing and pulse
  • Damage to the structure and function of the heart
  • Drop in internal body temperature, leading to constant feelings of coldness
  • Lethargy
  • Infertility
  • Brain damage
  • Multiple organ failure

Anorexia is a serious mental health condition with one of the highest mortality rates. According to the South Carolina Department of Mental Health, up to 10% of people with anorexia die within 10 years of developing the condition and 20% will die after 20 years.[4] Because of this, you must seek professional help if you or your loved one suffers from anorexia nervosa.

What Causes Anorexia?

Anorexia is caused by a combination of factors, from internal factors like genetics and personality traits to external factors like one’s culture and environment. In other words, no one thing causes anorexia and the trigger for this disease can be different for everyone.

With that being said, let’s take a look at the main causes of anorexia nervosa and other related eating disorders.


Up until recently, researchers and scientists believed that anorexia was a psychosocial disorder. This means they believed that it was caused by external factors, like one’s environment or the culture around them. However, recent studies have found a genetic link to the condition.[5]

If you have a family member or a close relative that suffers from anorexia or another eating disorder, you are more likely to develop one yourself.


Hormones are responsible for a lot of various things, like appetite, growth, mood, stress, and even your ability to fall asleep. As previously mentioned, anorexia nervosa is not about the food, instead, it is about controlling one’s environment when they are experiencing intense emotional issues. With that being said, anorexia is linked to hormonal imbalances, specifically cortisol and serotonin – the hormones responsible for stress and mood.

Personality Traits

If you struggle with anorexia, you usually demonstrate certain personality traits that are linked to the disorder. Some of these personality traits include:

  • Perfectionism
  • Low self-esteem and self-worth
  • A lack of self-confidence
  • Anxiety
  • Impulsivity
  • Troubles dealing with emotions
  • Feelings of inadequacy

If you have the above-mentioned personality traits, you are at a higher risk of developing an eating disorder.


Many people in America have issues with their bodies and the way they look. This is because our society provides a significant amount of pressure to be “thin and beautiful”. Popular media tends to vilify people who are not considered “skinny” and fat-shame people who are overweight, which contributes to the development of eating disorders like anorexia.

Some of the ways society and culture contribute to anorexia include:

  • An overemphasis on thinness
  • Associating a thin figure with attractiveness and success
  • Viewing being large as something inherently bad or unattractive
  • The large majority of models and public figures are thin
  • Pressures to lose weight and slim down even when unnecessary


We are shaped by our experiences. When something bad happens, it can affect how we behave and move through the world for the rest of our lives. This eating disorder is linked to several environmental factors.

Some of the experiences that can cause you to develop anorexia nervosa include:

  • Peer pressure to be thin
  • Participating in an activity or sport that values a specific body shape (i.e. ballet, gymnastics, beauty pageants, etc.)
  • A turbulent home life
  • Being bullied at school for your appearance
  • History of sexual or physical abuse
  • Trauma

Finding Help for Anorexia Nervosa

While anorexia is a serious and life-threatening mental health condition, recovery is possible. With body-affirming care, nutritional counseling, and behavioral therapy, you or your loved one can recover from an eating disorder.

At Florida Recovery Group, we offer a separate mental health program specifically for adults 18 and older who suffer from emotional and psychiatric health issues. Our team of mental health therapists and medical professionals will evaluate, diagnose and treat the root cause with compassion and empathy.

Contact Florida Recovery Group today to get started.


  1. https://anad.org/eating-disorders-statistics/
  2. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/eating-disorders
  3. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/eating-disorders
  4. https://www.state.sc.us/dmh/anorexia/statistics.htm
  5. https://www.apa.org/monitor/mar02/genetic