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

Initial treatment seeking from professional health care providers for eating disorders: A review and synthesis of potential barriers to and facilitators of “first contact”

The objective of this study is to provide a comprehensive review of empirical research exploring barriers to and facilitators of initial treatment seeking (“first contact”) from professional health care providers by adults and young adults with eating disorders (EDs).

Read more

Identifying fundamental criteria for eating disorder recovery: a systematic review and qualitative meta-analysis

Background Outcome studies for eating disorders regularly measure pathology change or remission as the only outcome.

Read more

Attachment, mentalization and eating disorders: A review of studies using the adult attachment interview

Objective: To examine the role of attachment and mentalization in eating disorders, as investigated using the Adult Attachment Interview.

Read more

Media's role in the perpetuation and prevention of negative body image and disordered eating

This chapter extends our reviews of theory and research concerning media influences on weight and body shape in girls and women.

Read more

Help us improve!

Give us feedback!

We will continue throughout 2019 to update and improve the NEDC website and welcome any feedback you may have on the site.

Provide feedback