Why Have Eating Disorders Increased?

The increase in eating disorders in recent years is worrying. We analyze some of its possible causes.
Why Have Eating Disorders Increased?
Laura Ruiz Mitjana

Reviewed and approved by la psicóloga Laura Ruiz Mitjana.

Last update: 20 February, 2023

Eating disorders are a series of disorders characterized by changes in the way, type, and amount of food people eat. Recent estimates have found that its prevalence in society went from 3.5% for the period 2000-2006 to 7.8% for the period 2013-2018. What are the causes of this increase in eating disorders? We analyze them using the latest expert knowledge

3 reasons for the increase in eating disorders

The most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) classifies disorders of this type into 8 categories:

  • Anorexia nervosa
  • Bulimia nervosa
  • Binge eating disorder
  • Avoidant or restrictive food intake disorder
  • Pica
  • Rumination
  • Other specified eating disorders (purging disorder, night eating syndrome, atypical anorexia nervosa, subthreshold bulimia nervosa, and orthorexia)
  • Unspecified eating and eating disorders

All of these are characterized by persistent disordered eating behaviors that interfere with social and psychological functioning.

They’re more common among adolescents and women, although in recent years we have seen how the cases among adults and men have skyrocketed. Let’s look at 3 possible causes of the increase in eating disorders.

1. Idealization for a perfect figure

The increase in eating disorders is worrying.
Today’s beauty standards are so high that they can lead to eating disorders.

A systematic review published in the Brazilian Journal of Psychiatry in 2020 found that insults or bullying related to physical appearance is among the leading causes of eating disorders.

This is why some experts have suggested that disorders of this type are linked to culture, initially due to the cult of the idea of a perfect body and beauty in Western societies.

Advertising campaigns, the fashion industry, movies, the media, and perhaps most importantly, social media have established a universal beauty ideal. Those who don’t adhere to said canon of beauty don’t only consider themselves to be unattractive, but they are marginalized, victimized, and discriminated against.

Social networks like Instagram have taken the cult of beauty to the extreme, since having, showing and showing off a perfect body on this and other networks means immediate rewards (attention, comments, popularity).

Recent studies have confirmed that excessive use of social networks is associated with an increased risk of disordered eating behaviors.

The increase in eating behavior disorders can thus be connected with other problems such as addiction to new technologies, the Internet and mobile phones. The more time you spend admiring the perfect bodies on platforms and social networks, the more you will desire that standard.

2. Psychosocial and labor deterioration

Psychosocial and occupational deterioration have also been linked to the main catalysts for the increase in eating disorders.

Although, of course, changes in food intake can occur in any socioeconomic group, experts warn that people from the lower and middle class tend to manifest it more frequently. Similarly, it is known that the presence of psychiatric disorders such as anxiety and depression can lead to them.

The new generations are currently living in a time of great uncertainty at a financial level. The difficulties in finding a stable job and a salary that covers their needs and aspirations are increasing. All this translates into a load of stress, anguish, tension and frustration such that it explains the increase in eating disorders.

3. Restrictions in social life

The rise in eating disorders.
Low social interaction is a factor that can lead to psychological problems.

The best example of the restrictions in social life is the isolation caused by the coronavirus pandemic. A study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health in 2021 alerted to the increase in disorders of this type among young people and adults during the pandemic.

Although it is true that other factors came into play (such as financial uncertainty, fear of dying, and so on), isolation was a great driver for changes in eating behavior.

But this isn’t all. We can add another factor such as the isolation induced by the predilection for virtual meetings. That is, conversing through social networks and messaging networks instead of doing it in person.

When someone doesn’t interact regularly with people in a physical way, they are prone to developing behavioral disorders as there is no one who’s going to look at them to spot anything going on.

Because of all these reasons, researchers have associated loneliness with a greater risk of developing eating behaviors of this type. Similarly, the deterioration of interpersonal relationships can have the same effect. In short, voluntary or forced isolation may be behind the increase in eating disorders.

It’s very important to keep in mind that eating disorders lead to very serious psychological and physical health problems. For example, suicidal thoughts and actions, depression, anxiety, diabetes, malnutrition, obesity, hypertension, and much more. There are several ways to address them, so a person suffering from these issues should see an expert as soon as possible to avoid negative complications.

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