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Causes, symptoms and help for eating disorders

A little girl in a pink top hiding a donut behind her back.

Eating disorders tend to run in families and share common genes, says Joann Hendelman, clinical directorfor the National Alliance for Eating Disorders.
“About 60 to 80 percent of the reason for eating disorder is genetic. Genes load the proverbial gun. The environment pulls the trigger,” she says. “The No. 1 reason for children to be bullied is body size, either too large or too small. The problem is that our culture judge people based on their body size. Yet, body size is a genetic issue, not a cultural one.”

 Certain factors can contribute to developing an eating disorder, says Henah Gupta, past president, South Florida’s chapter of The International Association of Eating Disorders Professionals Foundation. “These factors can include family history of mental health illness, low self-esteem, poor peer relationships, unhealthy living environments, social factors, emotional instability, limited coping skills, cultural and biological factors.” 

Trauma, other psychiatric illness, physical issues and activities that require weight regulation, such as ballet and wrestling, also can be triggers. “Society’s obsession with thinness and the war on obesity also play a part,” Hendelman says.

People of all ages, genders, socio-economic status, shapes and sizes, sexual orientations, abilities, ethnicities and races can experience eating disorders.

Social media often is a source of false information and may impact body image more than traditional media because people are prone to compare themselves to their friends, Hendelman says. Social media users can perpetuate the stigma by altering posted images.

“Fifty percent of social media users Photoshop their images. They choose the best image to post. They post images of friends that are not Photoshopped. Those images are perhaps not the best images of that friend,” she says.


A phone call to 866-662-1235 or email to The Alliance for Eating Disorders Awareness can reach a staff member who can support the person struggling with an eating disorder, Hendelman says. Five free support groups meet weekly at the alliance. A family and friends group meets on Wednesdays.

The alliance aligns people with programs and therapists accepting their insurance while helping decide which programs are most appropriate. The organization's national website offers a confidential way to find a therapist or treatment program.

Overeaters Anonymous has approximately 6,500 meetings in more than 80 countries. The Palm Beach County Intergroup, at 561-820-9242, hosts about 30 monthly meetings throughout the county, listed here.

Eating disorders are not just about food, Gupta says. Part of the treatment works on changing the underlying emotional issues. Parents can support their children by talking openly about this, she says.

“Sometimes families may benefit from psychotherapy as well as the individual,” Gupta says. “I encourage parents to have their child evaluated by an eating-disorders professional if they feel concerned about their health. The sooner the individual gets into treatment, the better the chances for long-term change.”
A multi-disciplinary approach is best. Parents can consult a dietitian to determine if their child’s eating patterns are concerning, Gupta says.

Parents are the first line of defense in preventing children’s eating disorders. Start by making mealtime a pleasure.

Serve a variety of foods. Talk about pleasant subjects while eating. Have your child help prepare meals. Take them food shopping. Eat at a regular time. Praise your child when they finish their meal.

Such habits can make for happy meals, according to a recent study by the National Institute of Mental Health.

People struggling with an eating disorder may have some, but not all, of the following emotional and behavioral signs, Hendelman says. Encourage the person to seek professional help if you notice patterns. Negative or distorted self-image

  • Frequent checking the mirror for perceived flaws
  • Self-worth and self-esteem dependent on body shape and weight
  • Fear or avoidance of eating in public or with others; eating in secret
  • Preoccupation with food
  • Eating tiny portions; refusing to eat; excuses for not eating
  • Hoarding and hiding food
  • Disappearing after eating, often to the bathroom
    Unusual food rituals, such as chewing each bite too much or eating very slowly


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Related resources

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    The Alliance for Eating Disorders Awareness of Palm Beach County

    Services, information and intervention related to eating disorders

    561-841-0900 Website
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    Mental Health America of Palm Beach County

    Based in West Palm Beach, local information and services related to mental health, including support groups and an online screening test

    561-832-3755 Website
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    National Alliance on Mental Illness Palm Beach County

    Family-to-Family — free 12-session course for caregivers of family members with severe mental illness

    561-588-3477 Website