Research Review: What we have learned about the causes of eating disorders - A synthesis of sociocultural, psychological, and biological research

About this resource

BACKGROUND: Eating disorders are severe psychiatric disorders with a complex etiology involving transactions among sociocultural, psychological, and biological influences. Most research and reviews, however, focus on only one level of analysis. To address this gap, we provide a qualitative review and summary using an integrative biopsychosocial approach. METHODS: We selected variables for which there were available data using integrative methodologies (e.g., twin studies, gene-environment interactions) and/or data at the biological and behavioral level (e.g., neuroimaging). Factors that met these inclusion criteria were idealization of thinness, negative emotionality, perfectionism, negative urgency, inhibitory control, cognitive inflexibility, serotonin, dopamine, ovarian hormones. Literature searches were conducted using PubMed. Variables were classified as risk factors or correlates of eating disorder diagnoses and disordered eating symptoms using Kraemer et al.'s (1997) criteria. FINDINGS: Sociocultural idealization of thinness variables (media exposure, pressures for thinness, thin-ideal internalization, thinness expectancies) and personality traits (negative emotionality, perfectionism, negative urgency) attained 'risk status' for eating disorders and/or disordered eating symptoms. Other factors were identified as correlates of eating pathology or were not classified given limited data. Effect sizes for risk factors and correlates were generally small-to-moderate in magnitude. CONCLUSIONS: Multiple biopsychosocial influences are implicated in eating disorders and/or disordered eating symptoms and several can now be considered established risk factors. Data suggest that psychological and environmental factors interact with and influence the expression of genetic risk to cause eating pathology. Additional studies that examine risk variables across multiple levels of analysis and that consider specific transactional processes amongst variables are needed to further elucidate the intersection of sociocultural, psychological, and biological influences on eating disorders.

AuthorCulbert, Kristen M.; Racine, Sarah E. & Klump, Kelly L.
JournalJournal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and All
Volume56(11):1141-1164
Year2015

See also

Exercise interventions for women with anorexia nervosa: A review of the literature

OBJECTIVE: To identify exercise interventions in the empirical literature to help inform clinical decision making in the treatment of underweight individuals with anorexia nervosa (AN) and review any recommended differences in treatment planning for those who excessively exercise and those who do not.

Read more

Review article: Eating disorders and comorbidity

This review summarizes the current literature on the comorbidity of psychiatric disorders with anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder.

Read more

Neural responses to visual food cues: Insights from functional magnetic resonance imaging

The aim of this paper is to describe the patterns of functional magnetic resonance imaging activation produced by visual food stimuli in healthy participants, as well as in those with anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder and obesity.

Read more

The diagnosis of eating disorders in adults with learning disabilities: Conceptualisation and implications for clinical practice

Objective: The literature suggests that less attention has been afforded to eating disorders (EDs) in adults with learning disabilities (LDs) than in adults of normal intellect.

Read more

Help us improve!

Give us feedback!

We will continue throughout 2018 to update and improve the NEDC website and welcome any feedback you may have on the site.

Provide feedback