Psychology Can Help

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What causes an eating disorder and can it be treated?


Research has shown a wide variety of causes for eating disorders that range from societal pressure to be thin to nutritional deficiencies. Researchers are finding that eating disorders are caused by a complex interaction of genetic, biological, behavioral, psychological, and social factors. One approach involves the study of human genes, and researchers are working to identify DNA variations that are linked to the increased risk of developing eating disorders. Eating disorders are more common in women, and their prevalence is highest during the teenage and young adult years. Family stress is often one piece of the puzzle, as is low self esteem and harsh self criticism.


Adequate nutrition, reducing excessive exercise, and stopping purging behaviors are the foundations of treatment. Treatment plans are tailors to individual needs and may include one or more of the following:

  • Individual, group, and/or family psychotherapy
  • Medical care and monitoring
  • Nutritional counseling
  • Medications

Psychotherapies such as family based therapy, where parents of adolescents with anorexia nervosa assume responsibility for feeding their child, appear to be very effective in helping people gain weight and improve eating habits and moods.

To reduce or eliminate binge-eating and purging behaviors, people may undergo cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) in order to help learn how to identify distorted or unhelpful thinking patterns and recognize and change inaccurate beliefs.