Causes of Eating Disorders – Cultural Influences

Brindusa Vanta, MD, DHMHS
Medical editor

Ad Disclosure: Some of our recommendations, including BetterHelp, are also affiliates, and as such we may receive compensation from them if you choose to purchase products or services through the links provided

Diet culture, the societal fixation on slimness and weight loss, directly influences eating behaviors and escalates the incidence of eating disorders. It glorifies thinness, often at the expense of individuals' health and well-being, perpetuated by media, advertising, and social expectations. This culture not only encourages unhealthy eating patterns but also fosters body dissatisfaction, leading to a rise in eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder. Addressing the link between diet culture and eating disorders is urgent, as it affects a broad demographic, particularly young individuals. Recognizing and challenging diet culture is vital for promoting healthier attitudes toward body image and eating habits.

Origins and Evolution of Diet Culture


Diet culture has its roots in the early 20th century, emerging from a growing societal focus on health, beauty, and the "ideal" body image. Initially, dieting and body shaping were seen as methods for improving health and longevity. However, by midcentury, the emphasis shifted toward obtaining aesthetic appeal and conforming to societal standards of beauty. 

The late 20th century marked a significant escalation in diet culture, influenced by the rise of mass media, celebrity culture, and the fitness industry. This period saw the proliferation of weight loss programs, dieting books, and fitness regimens, all emphasizing thinness as the pinnacle of success and attractiveness.

Therapists are Standing By to Treat Your Depression, Anxiety or Other Mental Health Needs

Explore Your Options Today


The evolution of diet culture has been shaped by various societal and technological changes. These changes have led to the current landscape, where diet culture is not only about food but also about the pursuit of an idealized body image through any means necessary. This pursuit has been intensified by the advent of digital media, making diet culture more pervasive and influential than ever.

Current Manifestations of Diet Culture

In recent years, diet culture has found new life through social media platforms, where influencers and celebrities promote fad diets, detoxes, and lifestyle trends that promise quick weight loss and aesthetic improvements. Platforms such as Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube are rife with content that glorifies restrictive eating and extreme fitness routines, often without regard for long-term health implications. These trends perpetuate unrealistic standards of beauty and blur the line between healthful eating and disordered eating behaviors.

Fad diets have surged in popularity, fueled by anecdotal success stories and celebrity endorsements. While some individuals may find temporary success or health improvements, these fad diets often lack scientific backing for their long-term efficacy and safety. The emphasis on immediate results and drastic transformations feeds into the cycle of yo-yo dieting, body dissatisfaction, and the development of unhealthy relationships with food.

The Influence of Media on Body Image Norms

Media plays a pivotal role in shaping societal norms around beauty and body image. Through a relentless portrayal of idealized body types, media platforms create and reinforce unrealistic standards of beauty that are often unattainable for the average individual. This bombardment of idealized images across television, movies, magazines, and digital and social media platforms fosters a culture where physical appearance is overly emphasized, and deviation from these standards is often met with disapproval or invisibility.

The omnipresence of these images influences individual aspirations toward physical appearance and sets a societal benchmark for normalcy and desirability. This pervasive influence leads to widespread body dissatisfaction as individuals—predominantly women but increasingly men and nonbinary people—struggle to reconcile their body image with the ideals presented to them. This dissatisfaction is a well-documented risk factor for the development of eating disorders, as individuals may resort to harmful eating behaviors in an attempt to achieve these unattainable standards.

Research on the link between nonbinary identity and body image or dieting behaviors is still in the early stages. However, based on available data, some nonbinary individuals feel underrepresented in mainstream media, experience gender dysphoria, or feel social pressures related to their gender presentation and expression. All these factors can contribute to body image concerns. 

Media's Contribution to Eating Disorders

The direct correlation between media exposure and eating disorders has been extensively studied. Findings indicate that engagement with media that emphasizes thinness and promotes dieting contributes to the internalization of thin ideals. This internalization can lead to disordered eating as a means to achieve what is perceived as the ideal body shape. The impact is particularly pronounced among adolescents and young adults, who are more susceptible to external influences and are at a critical stage in developing their self-identity and body image.

Moreover, the rise of social media has introduced new dynamics to the influence of media on eating disorders. Platforms such as Instagram and TikTok, where users can curate and share images, have become hotbeds for the spread of diet culture and the glorification of certain body types. The interactive nature of these platforms allows for immediate feedback through likes, comments, and shares, fostering environments ripe for social comparison and body dissatisfaction.

Addressing the Broader Effect

To counteract the broader effect of media on eating disorders, there is a growing call for media literacy and body positivity initiatives. Educating individuals on the constructed nature of media content and promoting critical engagement with media messages can help mitigate the impact of harmful beauty standards. Additionally, the body positivity movement, which advocates for the acceptance of all body types and challenges societal beauty norms, offers a counternarrative to mainstream media's narrow depiction of beauty.

Encouraging diversity in media representation and supporting content that celebrates a range of body types and stories can also play a significant role in shifting societal norms. By broadening the spectrum of beauty and normalizing body diversity, media can contribute to a healthier societal view of body image and reduce the prevalence of eating disorders.

Signs of Eating Disorders

Eating disorders manifest in various forms, but certain red flags can signal the need for concern. These signs are often a direct response to the pressures exerted by diet culture and may include:

  • Significant and Rapid Weight Changes: Drastic weight loss or gain in a short period without a medical explanation
  • Preoccupation With Weight, Food, and Calories: An obsessive focus on counting calories, dieting, and controlling food intake, often accompanied by frequent checking in mirrors for perceived flaws
  • Distorted Body Image: Expressing dissatisfaction with one’s body regardless of weight changes, often comparing oneself unfavorably to others
  • Extreme Eating Patterns: Skipping meals, fasting, binge eating, or restrictive dieting that avoids entire food groups
  • Excessive Exercise: Engaging in intense physical activity to "earn" calories or compensate for eating
  • Withdrawal From Social Activities: Especially those involving food, indicating possible anxiety around eating in public or being unable to control the food environment
  • Changes in Mood: Increased irritability, depression, or anxiety
  • Physical Signs: Dizziness, fainting, hair loss, dental problems (from vomiting), or irregular menstrual cycles in females

Dr. Brindusa Vanta says, "Note that some symptoms described above, especially physical symptoms such as changes in menstrual cycles, fainting, or dizziness, as well as withdrawal from social activities, can also be caused by medical conditions unrelated to eating disorders. Seeking a medical assessment is essential to receive a diagnosis and address the underlying causes."

The Importance of Early Intervention

The earlier a healthcare professional identifies and treats an eating disorder, the better the chances for recovery. Eating disorders can have severe physical, psychological, and social consequences if left untreated. Early intervention not only helps to mitigate these impacts but also supports a more straightforward path to recovery by preventing the continuation of disordered eating behaviors and attitudes.

As Dr. Brindusa Vanta, MD, explains, "Anorexia nervosa is a common eating disorder. It is known for having the highest mortality rate among all psychiatric illnesses."

Seeking Professional Help

If you or someone you know exhibits these red flags, it's crucial to seek professional help. Healthcare providers, such as general practitioners, can offer initial assessments and referrals to specialists in eating disorders, such as psychologists, psychiatrists, and dietitians. In many countries, national eating disorder associations provide hotlines, online support, and directories of local treatment providers. These organizations can be a valuable starting point for finding help and understanding more about the condition and the available treatment options.

Follow these steps to address a possible eating disorder: 

  • Contact a trusted healthcare provider for an assessment and referral.
  • Reach out to national eating disorder associations for guidance, support, and resources.
  • Consider support groups, which can offer comfort and advice from those with similar experiences.

Unsure about your eating habits? Start our Do I Have An Eating Disorder Quiz now.

Additional Resources

As advocates of mental health and wellness, we take great pride in educating our readers on the various online therapy providers available. MentalHelp has partnered with several thought leaders in the mental health and wellness space, so we can help you make informed decisions on your wellness journey. MentalHelp may receive marketing compensation from these companies should you choose to use their services.

MentalHelp may receive marketing compensation from the above-listed companies should you choose to use their services.