Prevalence and Causes of Eating Disorders

underweight person clutches back; causes of eating disorders, Castle Craig Rehab

Although statistics show that over 1.6 million people in the UK have an eating disorder, that number is estimated to be much, much larger. Potentially, even four times that amount. Not only that, but eating disorders seem to be becoming more common and affecting all types of people. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of all psychiatric problems, so it is crucial to learn more about the causes of eating disorder and how to help.

Not long ago, eating disorders were stereotyped as being a female problem. Most people imagine a young girl inspired by pictures of overly thin models, starving herself to match. Now, we know that eating disorders come in all shapes and sizes, and are not restricted to any sex or age group. In fact, recently, it was largely young men that were responsible for the drastic rise of 15% in eating-disorder prevalence. Currently, men make up about 25% of those officially diagnosed with an eating disorder.

There have been several new discoveries regarding the causes behind eating disorders. EDs, as they’re referred to for short, are often compared to addiction, and their root causes appear to be just as complicated.Given the sudden surge in eating disorder prevalence in the last few years, and the increase in ED-related hospitalisations, it is important to take the time to examine what we know about them today.

What Is An Eating Disorder?

An eating disorder is a psychological problem characterised by having an unhealthy relationship with food. This may be under-eating, overeating, purging food, or taking medications, supplements or other substances to alter one’s diet.

Some common eating disorders include:

  • Anorexia nervosa
  • Bulimia nervosa
  • Binge-eating disorder
  • ARFID (Avoidant or Restrictive Food Intake Disorder)
  • Pica
  • Orthorexia
  • Rumination disorder
  • Body/Muscle dysmorphia
  • EDNOS/OSFED (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified/Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder)

Who Is Affected By Eating Disorders?

Eating disorders can affect absolutely anyone. Whether a person is male or female, young or old, skinny or overweight, healthy or malnourished, they could all be victims of an eating disorder. While there are stereotypes that correlate with the term “eating disorder”, such stereotypes only paint a small part of a very big picture. In addition, most eating disorders are noticed in young adulthood, but they can develop at any age.

Anorexia, though one of the most well-known eating disorders, is actually one of the least common. People who have anorexia engage in habits of self-starvation. It affects about 0.6% of the UK population and 8% of people diagnosed with an eating disorder. It affects mainly your women, although lately has been increasingly common among young men as well. Anorexia is diagnosed, on average, around the age 16 or 17.

Bulimia, characterised by episodes of bingeing and purging food, is more common, affecting about 1% of the UK population. About 19% of people with eating disorders are said to have bulimia. It is also often spotted in adolescence, at around 18-19 years.

Eating disorders come in many forms

Binge-eating disorder, which is simply the overconsumption of food without purging, is one of the most common disorders. It affects 3.2% of the UK population, or 22% of those with an ED. This is one of the few disorders that is most commonly diagnosed in middle age, around 30-40 years old.

Muscle dysmorphia, or “bigorexia” is one of the fastest growing eating disorders today, especially among young men. In several studies, about 22% of males and 5% of females have admitted to some sort of disordered, muscularity-oriented behaviours. Other studies show similar findings. About a million people in the UK admit to using performance-enhancing drugs, such as steroids, for aesthetic rather than performance purposes.

However, the majority of all eating disorders are made up by those not yet classified. They are known as ‘Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder’ or ‘Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified’. About 47% of all people who have been diagnosed with an eating disorder are said to have EDNOS. Here, people will have symptoms of an eating disorder, but will not fit neatly into one category.

Causes of Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are believed to be caused by a number of factors. It is a combination of psychological, genetic, social, and environmental reasons. While they do not necessarily determine whether a person will develop an eating disorder, they are known to increase the risk.

Psychological Factors

Eating disorders for a long time have been believed to be a solely psychological problem. As living beings, people do not naturally want to do things that sabotage their survival. Our brain knows that we need to breathe, drink, and eat. Therefore, if someone purposefully starves themselves or puts themselves in harm’s way, there is most probably something wrong with their psychological well-being.

People who have eating disorders have a skewed perception of themselves, often due to low self-esteem. A person with anorexia or bulimia will see themselves as fat, when in reality they are a normal or even extremely low weight.

Other common psychological factors among those with eating disorders are general negative emotionality, elevated anxiety, and/or perfectionism. Characteristics of avoidant personality disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder are also often spotted.

It is also said that the development of an eating disorder can worsen psychological problems. For example, if a person who develops anorexia is already prone to perfectionism, the actual disorder will only exaggerate such traits.


It has long been noted that people with a family history of eating disorders are more likely to develop them as well. And recently, studies have finally discovered several new genetic components to eating disorders.

It was found that there are at least eight genes that confirm the link anorexia to other psychological problems such as depression, anxiety, and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), mentioned before. More are expected to be found as research continues. There are also genes found among eating disorder patients that affect their metabolism, which could explain why certain people are more prone to eating disorders than others.


The environment in which a person lives in has a large say on their psychological and physical well-being. People who develop eating disorders often live in a stressful environment, or have been through some sort of trauma in their lives.

Social Standards

The culture that a person is exposed to is known to affect how a person thinks. If they live among people who praise being thin, a person will strive to meet social expectations. Peer pressure is a very powerful thing, especially if you have low self-esteem.

Social media, undoubtedly, plays a large role in this, and its growing prevalence in most people’s lives today may explain why eating disorders are on the rise. One reason why muscle dysmorphia is on the rise, for example, is that men are portrayed as bigger and more muscular than before. And this starts at a young age. Whereas Barbies have long been said to give an unrealistic expectation for girls, now the same is being said for action figures played with by boys.

It’s An Addiction

It is possible that eating disorders are a type of addiction. There are many different behavioural patterns that correlate with addictive disorders. Those with eating disorders are also much more likely to have an addiction to alcohol or drugs as well. For example, men with muscle dysmorphia and females with anorexia are more likely to have an alcohol problem.

According to NEDIC, people with eating disorders are more likely than the average person to have a higher rate of:

  • Comorbid mental illness
  • Substance abuse issues
  • Injuries, accidents, or self-harm
  • Prescribed antidepressant, antipsychotic, or other psychiatric medication
  • Digestive issues

Food activates the same pleasure centres in the brain as drugs, so it is possible to be addicted to food. Just as an alcoholic will reach for a drink to unwind, binge eaters will use food as self-medication. Those with anorexia can be said to be “addicted to starvation” and will even experience some sort of withdrawal symptoms if they start eating normally. It is quite common for people with an addiction to also suffer from an eating disorder. In this case, attending a rehab that treats both may be most helpful.

Is Social Media a Cause for Eating Disorders?

Although there are a number of root causes for eating disorders, the media have most recently taken the blame for promoting unhealthy body standards. While social media cannot be held accountable for everything, the increase in social media use, including apps such as Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, and Twitter, definitely has some impact on the rise of eating disorders.

Not only does social media result in constant exposure to advertisements of “picture-perfect people”, but thanks to the addition of filters and image-editing software, literally everyone they see can appear much better than in reality. That puts more pressure on those who are already sensitive to begin with.

A human’s innate desire to appeal to others is what makes social media so dangerous. Although the media have for many years been criticized for promoting an “unrealistic female body”, the samer is now happening to men.

However, even without social media, pop culture in general has long glamourised certain eating disorders. Anorexia, for example, is often associated with being thin and pretty, such as in the enviable looks and lifestyles of models, ballerinas, or celebrities.

One girl said that when she confessed to her friends about being anorexic, she heard an unexpected response from a few. A couple of people replied something similar to, “Oh, I wish I was anorexic. I could be so skinny!”

Social Media Can Promote Toxic Ideas

Social media, and the anonymity of the internet, has also given rise to cyberbullying, which can be detrimental to someone with poor self-image. In addition, various platforms have been criticised for making it easier for people to engage in self-harming behaviour.

For example, people with eating disorders can now easily find and connect with  networks that promote eating disorders. Although pro-ana (those promoting anorexia) or pro-mia (bulimia) websites have long existed, they are now even easier to get access to. Thinspiration, or thinspo, which is used as motivation for some, is even easier to find. Thus, a person can easily become overly engaged in such self-harming behaviour.

Society Keeps Everyone Under Pressure

Even celebrities are not immune to it, although they are often already attractive to begin with. Many, including Beyonce and Kylie Jenner, have been repeatedly called out for their overly edited images. Such practices can skew a person’s perception of what a successful person should look like even more.

Eating disorders among celebrities and people who are constantly under the strain of the public eye are not uncommon.

Victoria Beckham, for example, admitted to struggling with an eating disorder when her career took off, and even now, decades later, continues to be under the watch of tabloids. Princess Diana confessed to battling bulimia and engaged in self-harming habits such as cutting. Demi Lovato has been very vocal about her diagnoses of anorexia and bulimia, as well as her substance abuse issues.

Men are affected too. Chris Pratt said he often feels so much pressure from the media that he turns to food as a coping mechanism. Robert Pattinson, despite once being labelled the “sexiest man alive”, claims he is constantly insecure about his body. Sam Smith also admits to body image issues and confessed to starving himself prior to photo shoots.

Treatment Options for Eating Disorders

Eating disorders can be addressed with self-care, outpatient, or inpatient programmes, depending on the person. Inpatient is recommended if other, less-intensive options fail to work. It is also necessary if a person has additional complications, such as substance abuse, or needs medical support.

Castle Craig Hospital is a residential rehab specialising in alcohol, drug, and behavioural addictions. We have worked with many patients with eating disorders and other psychological disorders. For over 30 years, we have helped thousands of people get back on their feet so they can live a healthy and happy life. If you like to inquire about our treatment programmes, feel free to give us a call at +44 1721 788 435 or email us at


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