What Causes Anorexia Nervosa?

Roughly 30 million Americans struggle with some sort of eating disorder throughout their lives, with many more undiagnosed. While mental health professionals maintain that all eating disorders require prompt treatment, those suffering from anorexia nervosa may need professional intervention the most.

Keep reading for basic information about anorexia nervosa, its subtypes, symptoms, and causes.

Anorexia Nervosa: The Basics

Anorexia nervosa is characterized by the persistent reduction of food intake over time, often resulting in significant weight loss beyond traditional health standards.

People that suffer from this eating disorder experience an intense fear of gaining weight and have a distorted body image – often believing themselves to be much larger or heavier than what their body mass index reports. This can lead to severe nutritional deficiencies, which may trigger health complications.

It doesn’t end with physical complications, either. Instead, many people with anorexia must also deal with a complex mix of emotional and psychological issues. That usually means contending with low self-esteem, bouts of irritation, elaborate and lengthy food rituals, and social withdrawal.

Types Of Anorexia

People with anorexia fall into two categories: the restricting type and the binge-eating/purging type. Here’s how they differ from each other.

Restricting Type

Individuals suffering from the restricting type of anorexia are usually concerned with bodyweight management and reduction. This can involve avoiding certain types of food, obsessive calorie counting, skipping meals altogether, and engaging in excessive exercise.

Binge Eating/Purging Type

A person who falls under the binge-eating/purging category also restricts their food intake but may sometimes “binge” or eat more than they need. After this binge, individuals that suffer from eating disorder subtype usually “purge” the extra calories through vomiting, enemas, diuretics, or laxatives.


Anorexia nervosa is a complex condition with a laundry list of associated symptoms. The main, most obvious symptom is low bodyweight or significant weight loss in the last few months. However, there are other signs and symptoms of this eating disorder you should look out for:

  • Significant muscle loss
  • Feelings of fatigue or exhaustion
  • Low blood pressure and lightheadedness
  • Low body temperature, especially in extremities
  • Upset stomach or bloat
  • Dry skin
  • Swollen hands or feet
  • Unusual hair loss
  • For women: less frequent or missed periods
  • Infertility
  • Insomnia or struggling to fall asleep
  • If purging: bad breath or tooth decay
  • Irregular heartbeats
  • Brittle nails
  • Constipation

There are also some behavioral “red flags”. These include mood swings, high or intense emotions, and an extreme obsession with weight/food. Here are some of the behavioral changes you should watch out for:

  • Closely monitoring calorie intake
  • Limiting overall food consumption or avoiding certain types of food
  • Excessive exercise and laxative use
  • Talking about being “fat” frequently
  • Developing “food rituals” that rule their mealtimes
  • Skipping meals or saying they aren’t hungry
  • Cooking for other people without eating
  • Showing signs of depression
  • Withdrawing from friends and family

What Causes Anorexia?

Just like all other eating disorders, anorexia nervosa is caused by a combination of biological, psychological, social, and environmental factors. You may have an increased risk of developing an eating disorder due to genetics, relationships, past experiences, and even your personality traits.

Here’s a breakdown of the most common risk factors for anorexia nervosa.

Biological Causes And Risk Factors

Mental health experts and academic research have found that one of the leading “genetic” causes of anorexia is a family history of similar eating or anxiety disorders. If a close relative or loved one has suffered from an ED in the past, you are significantly more likely to develop disordered eating habits in the future. Furthermore, people diagnosed with type 1 diabetes also tend to develop anorexia nervosa in both adolescence and adulthood.

Other studies have hinted at deeper biological causes involving the brain. Gray matter deficits in parts of the brain associated with emotion, motivation, and goal-directed behavior are a probable biological cause of anorexia.

Psychological Causes Of Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia nervosa isn’t actually caused by the desire to lose weight and appear more attractive. Instead, it really boils down to trauma and unhealthy coping mechanisms.

As with most other types of disorders, trauma is a major cause of anorexia nervosa. This could include past sexual violence, physical assault, unresolved childhood trauma, abusive relationships, and even just witnessing something distressing.

But why is it that some people develop a disorder like anorexia while others don’t? While there’s no one answer to this, therapists and mental health professionals have identified a few key personality traits that may influence the development of a disorder:

  • Perfectionism: Setting unnecessarily high expectations for yourself may trigger the desire to fit a “thin ideal”, as a result causing overly restrictive eating habits.
  • Body image dissatisfaction: While it’s (unfortunately) not uncommon to dislike how your body looks, intense dissatisfaction with one’s appearance can be a risk factor for disordered eating.
  • Anxiety: Research has found that a significant number of people with a diagnosed food-related disorder have also shown signs of an anxiety disorder before the onset of eating-related issues.
  • Behavioral inflexibility: Many people with anorexia nervosa report being taught that there was a “right way” to do everything, thus leading to behavioral inflexibility that can encourage disordered eating.

Social And Environmental Causes Of Anorexia

It’s fair to say that the entertainment and media industries have significant influence over the traits people find attractive – for example one such long-prized trait is “thinness”. The pressure to be thin or slender can also come from family members, friends, or even people at school that you don’t really know.

Constant comments and questions about weight or appearance can deeply affect a person’s body image, which consequently can trigger people already susceptible to eating disorders. Many people with anorexia nervosa report being singled out by their appearance, usually relating to their weight.

What Can I Do To Help?

Treatment is essential for recovery, but sometimes people may not be aware of their condition or need a bit of support before seeking professional help. If you or someone you know may be struggling with anorexia, please get in touch today – we can discuss the best plan of action to aid your recovery.

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