Almost every parent who has a child with an eating disorder asks: are eating disorders genetic? And the underlying secondary question is: is this my fault somehow?
So let’s address the real question: are parents to blame for eating disorders? Did they pass along genetic code that caused the eating disorder?
No, parents don’t cause eating disorders, either through passing along genes or doing something to cause it. Eating disorders are complex mental illnesses that can’t be explained by any single cause. The fact is that we’re still learning about how multiple factors combine to cause an eating disorder in some people but not others.
So … are genetic factors involved in eating disorder development? The answer is that yes, it appears that genetic factors are involved in eating disorders. While there isn’t a specific gene that directly causes eating disorders, it appears that certain genetic factors may combine to make a person more susceptible to developing an eating disorder.
Do eating disorders run in families?
There is evidence that the eating disorders anorexia and bulimia run in families. Studies have found increased rates of eating disorders in people who have relatives with anorexia and bulimia. Data suggests a 7-10x increase in anorexia and bulimia in people who have a relative with an eating disorder.
However, since eating disorders are strongly associated with social and environmental conditions, it’s hard to say whether the family link is genetic or behavioral. In other words, do eating disorder run in families because there is a common gene? Or do they run in families because the people in the families tend to create certain environmental conditions?
Example of Family Expression
Marcus grew up in a family that was always watching what other people were eating. Common phrases at family meals were:
- That food is like diabetes on a plate
- Are you sure you need to eat all that?
- I’m watching my weight
- Maybe you should slow down
Marcus’ sister Hillary had an eating disorder. When Marcus’ daughter Jenny developed an eating disorder, he looked back on his family history and realized how dedicated he was to being the food police. It seemed normal and natural to constantly question Jenny’s food choices and make suggestions and criticisms of her food choices. It is not Marcus’ fault that Jenny developed an eating disorder, but now he knows that this behavior can negatively impact Jenny’s relationship with food so he’s working hard to stop doing it.
Are eating disorders genetic?
Twin studies help us see whether there are specific genes that cause eating disorders. And genetic analysis of twins suggests that 58-76% of genetic variance seems to be associated with anorexia. And 54-83% of genetic variance seems to be associated with bulimia. This indicates that there are genetic factors that influence eating disorder development.
When twin studies observe eating disorder behaviors like binge eating, self-induced vomiting, and dietary restraint, it appears they may be 46-72% based on genes. And the beliefs that typify eating disorders like body dissatisfaction, eating and weight concerns, and weight preoccupation appear to be 32-72% genetic.
How do genes cause eating disorders?
We are not at the point at which we can point to a specific eating disorder gene. And even if we could, having a gene does not mean you will develop a particular disease or disorder. For example, we have identified that the BRCA1 gene mutation indicates a predisposition to develop breast cancer. But of women who have the mutation, not 100% develop breast cancer. In fact, 55-65% will develop breast cancer before age 70. Thus, genes don’t tell us the full story.
This is where a new field called epigenetics can help us understand a bit more. Epigenetics is the study of gene expression. It looks at the reasons why someone who has a certain gene develops a problem, while others who have the same gene do not.
From epigenetics we know that while genes are important to the development of disorders and disease, they are not the whole answer. Emotional factors like stress and physical factors like pollution interact with genes to complete the picture.
Example of Genetic Expression
Jane and Felicity are cousins. They share the same genetic predisposition to develop a certain disease. This disease has also been correlated with stress and environmental pollution.
- Jane practices emotional regulation and actively processes the worst impacts of stress. She also lives in a relatively pollution-free environment.
- Felicity works in a high-stress field and believes she thrives on stress. She doesn’t do anything to manage her stress and lives in a highly-polluted area.
Even with this information, we still can’t know which (if any) of the cousins will develop the disease. There is no way to control and prevent all disease even when we know about the factors that can cause them. But we can see that Jane is taking the steps that are within her control to reduce her probability of developing the disease.
What can parents do if they have a family member with an eating disorder?
Even if we knew exactly which genetic factors cause eating disorders, we still don’t have a way to block those genes from being triggered. It’s really helpful for parents to know that genetics play a role in eating disorders so they don’t think eating disorders are a choice or something optional. Eating disorders are complex and tend to persist, so it’s best if parents take them seriously and pursue treatment ASAP.
Parents can’t control a child’s development of an eating disorder or their outcome in eating disorder treatment, but they can make a significant impact on preventing eating disorders and supporting recovery. This can include making changes to the family environment, monitoring for social elements that can contribute to eating disorders, and looking closely at their own behaviors and beliefs.
Together, these actions can help a parent go from being a helpless bystander to being an essential part of a child’s recovery from an eating disorder.
If you want to learn more about how you can help your child recover, please reach out for parent coaching. I’d be glad to help!
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders and body hate.
She’s the editor of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents handle their kids’ food and body issues.