If people are vulnerable to eating disorders, sometimes all it takes to put the ball in motion is a trigger event that they do not know how to handle. A trigger could be something as seemingly innocuous as teasing or as devastating as rape or incest.
Triggers often happen at times of transition, shock, or loss where increased demands are made on people who already are unsure of their ability to meet expectations. Such triggers might include puberty starting a new school, beginning a new job, death, divorce, marriage, family problems, breakup of an important relationship, critical comments from someone important, graduation into a chaotic, competitive world, and so forth.
There is some evidence to suggest that girls who achieve sexual maturity ahead of peers, with the associated development of breasts, hips, and other physical signs of womanhood, are at increased risk of becoming eating disordered. They may wrongly interpret their new curves as “being fat” and feel uncomfortable because they no longer look like peers who still have childish bodies.
Wanting to take control and fix things, but not really knowing how, and under the influence of a culture that equates success and happiness with thinness, the person tackles her/his body instead of the problem at hand. Dieting, bingeing, purging, exercising, and other strange behaviors are not random craziness. They are heroic, but misguided and ineffective, attempts to take charge in a world that seems overwhelming.
Sometimes people such as diabetics who must pay meticulous attention to what they eat become vulnerable to eating disorders. A certain amount of obsessiveness is necessary for health, but when the fine line is crossed, healthy obsessiveness can quickly become pathological.
Perhaps the most common trigger of disordered eating is dieting. It is a bit simplistic, but nonetheless true, to say that if there were no dieting, there would be no anorexia nervosa. Neither would there be the bulimia that people create when they diet, make themselves chronically hungry, overeat in response to that hunger, and then, panicky about weight gain, vomit or otherwise purge to get rid of the calories.
Feeling guilty and perhaps horrified at what they have done, they swear to “be good.” That usually means more dieting, which leads to more hunger, and so the cycle repeats again and again. It is axiomatic in eating disorders treatment programs that the best way to avoid a binge is to never, never allow oneself to become ravenously hungry. It is far wiser to be aware of internal signals and respond to hunger cues early on by eating appropriate amounts of nourishing, healthy food.