Why do people suffer from eating disorders?

Rather than just problems of eating, eating disorders are often intertwined problems that involve the patient's emotions, growth experiences, stress, and interpersonal relationships. Although doctors are not yet certain about the pathological factors of the brain that cause eating disorders, it is believed that genetic factors do play a role, and the risk of eating disorders tends to increase with family history.

In terms of personality and psychological problems, low self-image, lack of intrinsic value, perfectionism, and emotional illnesses can all lead to eating disorders. Meanwhile, social and cultural factors also have impacts. By promulgating "skinny is beautiful" as the concept of ideal appearance, the media or popular culture has distorted the perception of body image. People in careers that focus on their body shape, for instance, models, dancers, etc., have higher risks of developing eating disorders.

Likewise, some personal experiences such as being teased and bullied for appearance, peer pressure, and sexual assault or physical abuse may also lead to eating disorders.

What are the health impacts of eating disorders?

In general, it is necessary to consider a person's height in order to determine whether his/her weight is within the suitable range. Hence, the body mass index (BMI) [i.e. weight (kg) divided by height (m2)] is usually used as an indicator. If a person's BMI is less than 17.5 kg/m2, he/she will be diagnosed as an anorexic patient. Eating disorders can damage body organs. While women may have menopause due to endocrine disorders, men may have sexual dysfunction. Other effects include: hair and nails become fragile, dryness and yellowing of the skin, muscle atrophy, slow breathing and heart rates, severe constipation, as well as tiredness and sensitivity to cold temperatures. 

Since most bulimic patients will engage in inappropriate compensatory behaviours to avoid weight gain after repeated and uncontrolled eating, they can maintain the weight of normal people. Such inappropriate compensatory behaviours, such as self-induced vomiting and purging, can cause damage to the oesophagus by gastric acid, which can lead to chronic sore throat, swelling of the neck and salivary glands in the lower jaw, tooth decay, etc. Meanwhile, severe dehydration and electrolyte imbalance can cause arrhythmia, kidney stones or renal failure, etc. and lead to long-term damages to bodily functions.


Apart from affecting all body parts, eating disorders can even lead to complications or death. Although most of the complications may be relieved with the improvement of nutrient absorption and the body's recovery process, some physiological damage may not be completely repaired. Hence, timely and appropriate treatment is very important.

The psychological aftermath of eating disorders can be equally serious, in which patients may simultaneously suffer from mental health problems such as depression. Cognitive behaviours and family support can help patients recover their physical and mental health.

Tips for preventing eating disorders
  1. Pay attention to personal emotions and learn appropriate relaxation methods, such as strolling, listening to music, drawing, etc. Avoid using food as a relaxation method.
  2. Learn to accept yourself. Recognize and affirm your self-worth. Rather than focusing on appearance, try to pay more attention to personal talent development.
  3. Avoid blindly following unrealistic or distorted aesthetic standards.
  4. Understand eating disorders. If you suspect that you or a family member is at risk of developing eating disorders, consult a doctor for early diagnosis or referral arrangements.
Last Updated: July 2020
Please note that all medical health articles featured on our website have been reviewed by Quality Healthcare doctors. The articles are for general information only and are not medical opinions nor should the contents be used to replace the need for personal consultation with a qualified health professional on the reader’s medical condition.