When you’re diagnosed with any sort of health issue or disorder, one of the first questions that probably pops into your mind is, “What caused it?” While it’s an important question to ask, there’s not always one definitive answer for mental health disorders, like eating disorders. And for eating disorders in particular, the cause is often unimportant: counterintuitive though it may seem, you usually don’t need to know the cause of an eating disorder to treat it effectively.

Still, understanding the root or roots of a condition can be helpful for people as they move through the recovery process, as well as for friends and family looking to understand why their loved one developed an eating disorder. In this article, we’ll take a look at the potential causes of anorexia nervosa in particular. Read on to learn the basics of anorexia as well as the common (and less common) factors that can contribute to it. Again, knowing the causes behind anorexia can be an empowering step, but it’s not a requirement in order to heal from it.

The basics to know about anorexia

Anorexia is a common eating disorder, with a lifetime prevalence rate of up to 4% of women and 0.3% of men. While the diagnostic criteria remains the same, anorexia can look different for everyone: not only do symptoms vary from person to person, but so can the factors that cause those symptoms.

Anorexia is an eating disorder characterized by extreme restrictive eating behaviors and an intense fear of weight gain. Because of the risks associated with malnutrition, it’s the most life-threatening eating disorder. In fact. Anorexia has one of the highest mortality rates of any psychiatric disorder, with more than 5% of patients dying within four years of being diagnosed. The rate of anorexia in females between 15 and 24 has notably increased over the last decade.

Symptoms of anorexia include:

  • Restricted quantity or types of food eaten
  • Difficulty eating in front of others
  • Being highly focused on body size and weight
  • Extreme weight loss

What are the causes of anorexia?

While eating disorders like anorexia emerge out of a constellation of different psychological, biological, and environmental factors rather than one distinct “cause,” there are some risk factors that have been associated with the development of anorexia.

Some of the potential causes of anorexia include:

  • Genetics: Certain genetic predispositions have been associated with anorexia. For instance, there are hundreds of genes located in specific regions of chromosome 1 that help to regulate appetite. Studies have shown that variations in these regions are common in people with anorexia. When these appetite-regulating genes are affected, they could interfere with the signaling pathways in your brain that relay feelings of hunger. This interference can make you more susceptible to eating disorders like anorexia.
  • Societal pressure: The expectations society puts on a person’s body, particularly their weight, can have a large impact on their mental health. Societal standards often encourage people to compare their body types to the “ideal” body types of others, causing insecurity and self-esteem issues. These pressures can cause someone to dramatically change their diet in hope of emulating those body types.
  • Trauma: When you experience trauma, it’s not uncommon to adopt disordered eating habits as a coping mechanism. Trauma can also lead to dissociation—or the feeling of being outside of one’s own body—and this disconnection also has the potential to fuel disordered eating behaviors, for instance by making it easier to ignore hunger.
  • Negative energy balance: When you have more calories leaving your body than going into your body, it can result in a negative energy balance. For people predisposed to eating disorders, this imbalance can trigger a switch in the brain and “turning” an eating disorder. That’s why dieting is one of the number one risk factors for developing an eating disorder.

3 causes of anorexia that aren’t often talked about

Now that we’ve discussed some common factors that can contribute to the development of anorexia, let’s talk about the not-so-common.

Here are three less common causes of anorexia:

  • Perfectionism: It’s possible that a person who strives to be perfect in every aspect will resort to dangerous, obsessive eating behaviors in order to look in a way that they deem as “perfect.” Perfectionism can often have roots in other mental health disorders, including anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder.
  • Family history: If you have people in your family tree who have experienced medical issues, you may try to take preventive measures by changing your eating habits, which can be the first step toward developing anorexia. This is especially true for people with a family history of diabetes or heart conditions.
  • Sports: Being an athlete means continuously working on your overall fitness level to reach and maintain your peak performance. If you’re involved in sports that focus on body size or shape, it can be a slippery slope into disordered eating and exercise. Eating disorders are especially common in weight-sensitive sports like ballet, bodybuilding, and gymnastics.

Remember that regardless of what caused someone’s anorexia, the disease is equally serious and requires treatment.

If you or a loved one have been diagnosed with anorexia, there are different aspects of treatment that will help you work toward a healthier relationship with food. While weight restoration is the first priority of treatment, another important step is taking a look at the behavioral, psychological, and emotional patterns that contribute to your symptoms. With the help of a multidisciplinary care team that includes a therapist, you can address factors that may have contributed to the development of your eating disorder and develop healthy strategies for dealing with triggers and challenges in the future..

Get in touch with our team today for more information or to schedule a free consultation.

About Tana Luo, PhD

Dr. Tana Luo, Equip’s Director of Program Development, is a clinical psychologist with a Ph.D. from the University of Southern California. She completed her predoctoral and postdoctoral training at the UC San Diego Eating Disorders Center. She specializes in treating pediatric and adolescent eating disorders and has in-depth experience working with children, adolescents, and adults at different levels of care.


1. Westmoreland, P., Duffy, A., Rienecke, R. et al. Causes of death in patients with a history of severe anorexia nervosa. J Eat Disord 10, 200 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40337-022-00716-5

2. Schaefer, Lauren M., et al. “Treating Eating Disorders in the Wake of Trauma.” The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health, vol. 6, no. 5, 2022, pp. 286-88. doi:10.1016/S2352-4642(22)00072-4.

3. Van Eeden, Annelies E., et al. “Incidence, Prevalence and Mortality of Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa.” Current Opinion in Psychiatry, vol. 34, no. 6, 2021, pp. 515-24. doi:10.1097/YCO.0000000000000739.

Randy Smith
Content Writer
Clinically reviewed by:
Tana Luo, PhD
Director of Program Development at Equip
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