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The Role of Genetics in Eating Disorders

Genetic Vulnerability

Eating disorders are serious, but treatable, biologically-based brain illness. Numerous family and twin studies indicate that genetic factors make up 50-80% of the risk of developing an eating disorder. However, genes alone do not predict or determine our destiny. And, for eating disorders, it is important to understand that these are not ‘one-gene’ conditions (like eye color), but ‘complex traits’ influenced by multiple genetic and environmental factors.


Environmental Triggers & Protective Factors

Clearly some environmental influences can increase the chances of a person developing an eating disorder, but probably only if that person was born with a biological predisposition.

This means that a person carrying one or more genetic risk factors for an eating disorder may never develop one if triggering environmental influences do not appear, or are buffered by protective factors such as:

  • age/sex at the time of exposure (developmental stages of growth and brain maturation),
  • maintenance of dietary habits that provide adequate energy and nutritional quality for activities, expected growth, and pubertal changes,
  • living or associating primarily with family and peers who model positive or beneficial eating habits and behaviors,
  • a high level of personal resilience (due to personality traits and/or learned coping skills),
  • a family environment that can provide effective support in times of distressing life events, or
  • an understanding of the facts about eating disorders, genetic vulnerability, and potential environmental triggers.



PDF Resource Links:

"Environmental and genetic risk factors for eating disorders: What the clinician needs to know"

Suzanne E. Mazzeo, PhDDepartments of Psychology and Pediatrics, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, VA, USA, and Cynthia M. Bulik, PhD, Departments of Psychiatry and Nutrition, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC, USA. Published in final edited form as: Child Adolesc Psychiatr Clin N Am. 2009 January ; 18(1): 67–82. doi:10.1016/j.chc.2008.07.003.

"Genetic Risk Factors For Eating Disorders Discovered"

Science Daily, May 12, 2007


Genetic Research

While we are far from a complete understanding of the complex interaction of genes and environment, research is ongoing and has already been the basis for promising clinical interventions. Genetic research findings benefit from large data sets, and efforts are currently underway to gather a large database of genetic material from around the world, that will be accessible to anyone doing genetic research on eating disorders.To find out more about these efforts, please visit the following sites for more information and instructions for how to contribute DNA samples.


ANGI (Anorexia Nervosa Genetics Initiative)


Charlotte's Helix Project

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F.E.A.S.T. (FAMILIES EMPOWERED AND SUPPORTING TREATMENT OF EATING DISORDERS) | US +1 855-50-FEAST | Canada +1 647-247-1339 | Australia +61 731886675 | UK +44 3308280031

F.E.A.S.T. is registered as a nonprofit organization under section 501(c)(3) of the United States Internal Revenue Code. Information on this site is meant to support, not replace, professional consultation. Unless otherwise noted, content is edited by F.E.A.S.T. volunteers with assistance from our Professional Advisory Panel.

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