Lack of support following traumatic events such as bereavement, abuse and sexual assault could trigger eating disorders.
Even changing school or moving home can prove too much for some young people and lead to conditions such as anorexia or bulimia, according to researchers from University of Minnesota.
They spoke to a group aged between 17 to 64 years receiving treatment for eating disorders for an average of 20 years, the Journal of Clinical Nursing reported.
"The aim of our study was to find out if there was any link between transitional events in family life and the onset of eating disorders," said Jerica M. Berge, assistant professor of family medicine and community health Minnesota, who led the study.
"Eating disorders are an important public health issue and knowing what causes them can help us to develop more effective treatment and support," added Berge, according to a university statement.
Some spoke about the problems they had adapted to the more independent world of junior high school and others talked about leaving home to go to college and how they missed friends and family.
Starting college was very hard for one woman. "Nobody knew who I was . . . I was incredibly lonely with no support and I just stopped eating." Another struggled to cope without regular support. "You don't receive the daily love that you are used to growing up, you are left to provide that for yourself and I just wasn't able to do it."
Breaking up with a partner affected some participants and others talked about their parents splitting up and moving on. When her father got a new girlfriend when she was seven, one woman lost the close relationship they had enjoyed.
"Overnight she became the most important thing in his life . . . his girlfriend would be really mean to me and my dad wouldn't defend me."
The death of a family member or close friend often proved traumatic, with people saying that they didn't not know how to deal with their grief and that they received little support.
One woman's sister died when she was five, but no-one talked about this "major event" in her life. "I started to eat - to compensate for feelings of anxiety." Another lost her mother to an eating disorder when she was 11. She found herself living in a single-parent household where she was given "so much freedom with not much emotional support... I lost control."