Are Eating Disorders Genetic?

February 27, 2024

Eating disorders are common, serious, and treatable health conditions. But why do some people experience eating disorders while others do not? Though there is no definitive answer to this question, many researchers and healthcare professionals believe genetics play a role in the development of an eating disorder. This article will dive deeper into the role genetics play, describe important studies in the field, and explain how this information can help you or a loved one get treatment for an eating disorder. 

What Is an Eating Disorder?

An eating disorder is defined by the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) as a condition characterized by acute, persistent changes in eating behaviors, often accompanied by negative or harmful emotions and thoughts. Many people suffer from the commonly known eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder. Eating disorders may appear as fixations on one’s relationships with food and eating, an intense focus on body weight, shape, or muscularity, and distorted body image. Some common eating disorder behaviors are extreme dieting, excessive exercise, binging, and induced vomiting.  Eating disorders can have significant negative impacts on both physical and mental health. Often eating disorders co-occur with other mental illnesses or psychiatric conditions such as anxiety and depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and addiction and substance use disorders.

Although eating disorders are thought to most commonly affect women, anyone can develop an eating disorder regardless of gender, age, race, or demographic background. Eating disorders can present in various ways and have varying severities depending on a wide range of factors from personal medical history to environmental influences. An eating disorder can cause long-lasting health problems and even be fatal, therefore, it is important to seek treatment as soon as possible. 

Health Impacts of Eating Disorders

The health impacts of any eating disorder can be severe and may lead to long-term health problems if not addressed. Accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment by medical professionals is of utmost importance for eating disorder recovery. If an eating disorder is not addressed, medical complications, such as chronic gastrointestinal issues, heart problems, persistent menstrual irregularity, organ dysfunction, infertility, and osteoporosis are all potential outcomes. Many individuals suffering from eating disorders also experience psychological health impacts as well. These may include feelings of shame and guilt, self-harm, substance abuse, depression, and anxiety disorders. Oftentimes these conditions exacerbate the severity of the eating disorder, creating a harmful feedback loop. These risks and health impacts can be minimized with prompt professional treatment. 

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The Genetics of Eating Disorders

While researchers still do not have conclusive explanations as to why people develop eating disorders, there has been increased research and understanding of the underlying causes. It is believed that many eating disorders can be linked to a genetic component. Genes, contained in chromosomes, are the basic unit of heredity made of DNA. You inherit your genes from your parents and this genetic information can dictate many personal attributes such as physical appearance, susceptibility to disease, and personality traits. Many studies have explored the role of genetic contribution in eating disorders, specifically anorexia nervosa. Researchers have found that a person’s disposition to develop anorexia nervosa is linked to multiple gene locations. It is known that the primary predictor for developing an eating disorder is a first-degree relative, such as a parent or sibling, having an eating disorder. In fact, someone with close relatives who have experienced an eating disorder are ten times more likely to develop one. In a study of nearly 80,000 patients, researchers have found common genetic markers in specific gene areas across the genome among those who experience eating disorders. These genes are associated with metabolic processes such as cholesterol and insulin production, which can impact appetite, satiety, and food intake. Genes associated with psychiatric conditions like anxiety and depression have also been discovered to have a role in eating disorders. These genetic risk factors may interplay and lead to the development of an eating disorder. Researchers believe that forty to sixty percent of a person’s susceptibility to developing an eating disorder may come from genetics, an astounding discovery with important implications for diagnosis and treatment.  

Important Studies

Many studies have explored the relationship between genetic influences and eating disorders. Each study uses its own methods and investigates varying factors. Family studies and twin studies have been an integral part of genetic research of eating disorders. Researchers compare the health conditions and genes of first-degree family members as well as identical twins to see how eating disorders are linked. These studies have shown significant correlations between genetic heritability and the development of an eating disorder. Researchers have also studied specific candidate genes in the genome in an attempt to isolate its effects on a particular trait. Research has shown that particular physical functions such as appetite regulation, serotonin and dopamine reception, and other neurological pathways can be impacted by individual genes. These functions all affect eating behaviors and thus may influence the development of an eating disorder. Another study assesses the connection between personality traits and genetics. It is believed that some traits such as impulsivity, obsessive thinking, and perfectionism can be heritable traits. These personality attributes are also commonly found among those experiencing an eating disorder. 

There are more studies that explore the association between genes and eating disorders and more that need to be conducted. As the scientific community understands more about this connection, healthcare professionals can work toward more effective treatment of eating disorders. 

Genetics versus Environment

When researchers study the connection between family history and eating disorders, it can be challenging to discern genetic heritability from environmental influences in the family dynamic. It is important to understand that individuals do not necessarily inherit a psychiatric disorder or eating disorder from a parent, but rather the vulnerability to developing one of these conditions. Furthermore, genes do not act alone; eating disorders can be influenced by environmental causes as well. Along with family medical history and genetic predisposition, cultural factors have been found to contribute to eating disorders. A history of abuse, neglect, and trauma, especially in the family environment can play a significant role and lead to an increased risk. Social pressures around idealized body image among peers and in the media may also have a role in the development of eating disorders. While genetics certainly do have an influential role in the development of an eating disorder, an individual’s environment also plays a role. 

How Does This Help Treat Eating Disorders?

Understanding the root causes of eating disorders is critical for the diagnosis, treatment, and even prevention. Much of the research around genetics and eating disorders has influenced how medical professionals approach the diagnosis and treatment of patients experiencing eating disorders. Many professionals utilize genetic counseling. Genetic counseling allows a medical professional to assess your personal and family medical history to make recommendations for your own healthcare. Actions may include genetic testing for a particular condition, addressing risk of a particular genetic condition in children, and managing an individual’s current medication or therapeutic intervention. Genetic counseling can also provide information for prevention. If a medical professional finds a genetic predisposition for a condition such as an eating disorder, symptoms can be more easily recognized and promptly addressed, reducing the potential severity and risk of long-term health problems that often occur with eating disorders. 

Given that eating disorders can be influenced both by genetic variations and environmental factors, it is important for medical professionals to have an understanding of a variety of those environmental influences. A person’s family dynamics, psychological history and psychiatric genetics, sociocultural influences, major life transitions, exposure to stress and trauma, and personal history of weight gain or weight loss and dieting are all important factors to discuss with a clinician. These elements may work in concert with genetics and can greatly impact one’s vulnerability to developing an eating disorder. Environmental and genetic factors can also impact finding an effective treatment for an individual’s particular condition. 

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Regardless of the cause, professional treatment is critical for full recovery from an eating disorder. It is important to reach out to appropriate healthcare providers that specialize in eating disorders for a diagnosis as well as find a care team and treatment facility that can help you or your loved one on the path to recovery. Eating disorder treatment varies greatly based on different types of eating disorders, the severity, the type of facility, and geographic availability. Depending on these factors, there are various levels of care, from outpatient treatment to residential  treatment. Working closely with a care team will help you find the treatment that is right for you on your journey to recovery. 

Seek Help

If you or a loved one is experiencing an eating disorder, you are not alone. Recovery is always possible and help is available with the National Alliance for Eating Disorders.