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Are Eating Disorders Genetic?

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Are eating disorders genetic? This looks like a simple yes/no question, but – as is so often the case when discussing mental health matters – the answer is a bit more complex.

If you or a loved one is struggling with an eating disorder, reach out to Peachtree Recovery Solutions today at (678) 325-7250 or learn more about our Atlanta rehab.

Are Eating Disorders Genetic?

Advances in genetic research have enabled scientists to discover potential genetic components of many conditions, including eating disorders

For example, as described in a March 2019 article in the journal Psychiatric Clinics, research conducted by the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium (PGC) has identified genetic variations that appear to be associated with anorexia nervosa. 

This finding is consistent with studies involving families and twins that suggested eating disorders may be heritable conditions.

The Psychiatric Clinics article also reported that there appears to be a genetic predisposition to other eating disorders, such as bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder. However, the authors of this article noted that further study is necessary to determine the extent of the relationship between genetic variations and these conditions.

While these studies appear to offer an affirmative answer to the question, “Are eating disorders genetic?” no reputable experts are suggesting that genetics alone are responsible for all cases of eating disorders. 

Even the Psychiatric Clinics article, which focused on the genetics of eating disorders, emphasized that heritability is just one of many factors that can influence a person’s risk for developing anorexia, bulimia, binge-eating disorder, or another form of disordered eating.

Other Risk Factors for Eating Disorders

In addition to genetics, the following are other factors that may also increase the likelihood that a person will struggle with an eating disorder:

  • Having a close relative with an eating disorder or another mental health concern
  • Gender (eating disorders are more common among girls and women than among boys and men)
  • Developing Type 1 diabetes or other autoimmune diseases
  • Personal history of certain mental health conditions
  • Dysregulation of the gut microbiome
  • Health complications during pregnancy
  • Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs)
  • Abuse or other forms of trauma later in life
  • Being teased, bullied, or harassed due to one’s weight or body shape

It is important to note that, as is also the case with genetics, the factors listed above may not have the same relationship with every type of eating disorder. 

Types of Eating Disorders

Another reason why the question, “Are eating disorders genetic?” is more complicated than it first appears is that the term “eating disorders” can encompass several distinct conditions. Here is a brief overview of some of the most common eating disorders:

  • Anorexia nervosa: Characterized by extreme, rigid dieting to the point of self-starvation, as well as an overwhelming fear of gaining weight or getting “fat,” anorexia nervosa is considered by many experts to be the deadliest of all mental illnesses.
  • Bulimia nervosa: People who have bulimia will engage in eating binges (uncontrollable eating of large amounts of food in a short period of time), and then use unhealthy compensatory measures such as self-induced vomiting, laxatives, or excessive exercise in an attempt to preclude weight gain. 
  • Binge-eating disorder: This type of eating disorder is similar to bulimia, but people who have this condition don’t usually engage in the compensatory behaviors that are symptomatic of bulimia.
  • Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID): People who have ARFID may appear to be extremely picky eaters. They may reject certain foods because of how they look, smell, or feel in their mouth. Though ARFID is not a weight-focused disorder, people who have this condition may become malnourished or fail to meet developmental goals because of their restrictive diet. 

Signs Someone Has an Eating Disorder

People who struggle with disordered eating often go to great lengths to hide the evidence of their behaviors. But, given the significant physical and psychological impact that these disorders can have, it is difficult to conceal them from close friends and family members forever. 

The following signs and symptoms could indicate that someone in your life has developed an eating disorder:

  • They have begun to wear baggy, shapeless clothing (which may be an attempt to disguise a significant weight gain or loss).
  • They obsess over their weight as well as the calories of the food they eat.
  • They adhere to a strict diet and will only eat certain foods.
  • They make judgmental or disparaging comments about themself or others based on weight, size, and appearance.
  • They often struggle with fatigue and exhaustion.
  • They are hesitant or unwilling to eat in front of other people.
  • They have gained or lost a noticeable amount of weight.
  • They have begun to pull away from family and friends, which may include ending their participation in activities that used to be very important to them.
  • They have problems focusing and concentrating.
  • Their menstrual cycle has become disrupted.
  • They exercise excessively and become irritated or agitated if they can’t work out.

No single warning sign is incontrovertible proof that someone has developed anxiety, bulimia, binge-eating disorder, or another type of disordered eating. However, anyone who exhibits several or all of the signs listed above may be in crisis, and they should be brought to the attention of a qualified healthcare provider. 

Completing a thorough evaluation and receiving an accurate diagnosis are two essential steps on the path toward getting appropriate treatment and recovering from an eating disorder.

Find Eating Disorder Treatment in Atlanta

Peachtree Recovery Solutions offers personalized care at the partial hospitalization and intensive outpatient levels for adults who have developed anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders. Adults who receive care at our eating disorder treatment center in Atlanta follow individualized plans that reflect their unique needs and goals. Every step of the way, our patients benefit from the guidance and support of our team of highly skilled and compassionate professionals. To learn more about how we can help you or a loved one, or to schedule a free intake assessment, please visit our Admissions page or call us today.