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

See also

Broad Categories for the Diagnosis of Eating Disorders (BCD-ED): An alternative system for classification

Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS), a residual category in DSM-IV, is the most commonly used eating disorder diagnosis in clinical settings.

Read more

Transdiagnostic Theory and Application of Family-Based Treatment for Youth With Eating Disorders

This paper describes the transdiagnostic theory and application of family-based treatment (FBT) for children and adolescents with eating disorders.

Read more

Nutritional rehabilitation in anorexia nervosa: Review of the literature and implications for treatment

Restoration of weight and nutritional status are key elements in the treatment of anorexia nervosa (AN).

Read more

The role of the pediatrician in family-based treatment for adolescent eating disorders: Opportunities and challenges

Empiric research supports that family-based treatment (FBT) is an effective treatment for adolescents with eating disorders.

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