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Genetics and Eating Disorders

The single most exciting development in eating disorder science is the evidence that eating disorders are genetically linked. But what does this mean for YOUR family member?

The news about eating disorder genetics is a game-changer. The rapidly developing insights about how genetics influence our brains and our metabolism have immediate and urgent importance for your family. You need not become an expert in genetics to use this information to support your person starting today.

Key points from recent genetic discoveries:

  • Genes do not act alone
  • Genes are not destiny
  • Genes help explain why some people are more vulnerable to environmental factors
  • Genetic research now points to both psychiatric and metabolic factors

Key caregiving insights from recent genetic research:

  • The necessity of adequate nourishment
  • The value of a non-dieting environment
  • Avoid negative energy balance* throughout the lifespan

People noticed long ago that eating disorders run in families. We now know that some people are born with a higher chance of being diagnosed with an eating disorder. Research indicates that 50-80% of a person’s risk can be explained by genetic factors. Yet there is no single gene behind the risk of an eating disorder as there is for some diseases, but rather hundreds (and even thousands) of genes of small effect.

Genomics, the study of our genetic code, is relatively new and it is rapidly improving our understanding of the disorders themselves. Recent work studying large numbers of those affected by eating disorders has revealed what parts of the brain — and gut — are driving eating disorder thoughts, behaviours, and emotions. We have learned in the past few years from pioneering genetics researchers how eating disorders are related to other psychiatric illnesses and to metabolic factors including glycemic and lipid-related traits.

For many people, especially those who have themselves struggled with eating disorders, the news of a genetic link has brought hope and validation. Many people feel understood and de-stigmatised by this information. When people learn that it is no more the fault or choice of the individual and their family than cystic fibrosis, type 1 diabetes, epilepsy or asthma, it can shift their attitudes fundamentally. Kindness, understanding and sympathy replace judgement and stigma.

*Negative energy balance is when a person is taking in less energy through food than their body is using.