Eating disorders are not age or gender specific; they can impact anyone at any time in their lives. Diagnosing and managing eating disorders can be complex, and many underlying factors determine their development. Recent studies have associated social pressure, general environments, and genetics as underlying reasons for developing an eating disorder, additionally raising questions regarding hereditary links (1). Today we will explore inherited eating disorders to better understand their genetic nature and how these connections may influence treatment modalities.
Genetic Factors in Eating Disorders
Increasingly, there is evidence of the role genetics may play in the development of eating disorders (1). Exposure to difficult relationships with food and body image in the home can have lasting impacts on children. Families may pass down these behaviors unless they break the cycle. Thus, it is essential to discuss and understand the genetics of eating disorders.
Inherited Traits and Eating Disorders
As noted above, the environment may play a role in developing an eating disorder; however, not everyone exposed to environmental conditions may acquire disordered eating patterns. For instance, two children may grow up in a house where a loved one has a complex relationship with food and body image, yet only one may suffer from an eating disorder. Which raises the question, why?
This pattern is likely due to specific traits passed down from generation to generation. These traits include how the individual views themselves and food, their coping styles, and the ability to manage emotions. Each of these can impact and increase the risk of developing an eating disorder. Additionally, there is evidence that these inherited traits can pass down to future generations (2), which is why families must be aware of these traits to disrupt the patterns.
Potential Risk Factors for Developing an Eating Disorder
Recognizing and responding to these potential risk factors is one way of preventing the development of an eating disorder. It may not be easy to influence genetics, but it is less challenging to alter the environment. The National Eating Disorders Association notes that the lived environment may influence the development of an eating disorder. For instance, children will witness and imitate how an adult responds to and manages stress. Accordingly, studies have linked stress to developing eating disorders (3).
Other factors which may influence disordered eating include societal expectations regarding body image. Parents may unwittingly mimic those expectations with comments expressing dissatisfaction with their own body images. Perfectionism is a trait that may pass from parent to child, and research has linked this trait to the development of eating disorders (4). Finally, as noted above, a family history of eating disorders is also a potential risk factor (3).
Environmental Factors Influencing an Eating Disorder
While an individual’s genetic and family background may contribute to the development of an eating disorder, individuals and families should also consider environmental factors. Social and cultural pressures to be what qualifies as thin, for example, can have a powerful influence on one’s body image and sense of self-worth (4). In addition, traumatic life experiences can trigger the onset of an eating disorder, as can negative comments about one’s appearance or body weight. Even the media can have an effect, as television and advertisements perpetuate images of what society views as ideal bodies (4). All of these environmental factors can contribute to the onset of an eating disorder, so it is essential to recognize their impact.
Effective Treatments for Eating Disorders Passed Down Through Families
Treating an eating disorder is often a long and challenging process that requires the help of an experienced mental health professional. Family-based therapy (FBT), sometimes called the Maudsley Method, is a particularly effective treatment that can help individuals and families address the underlying causes of the eating disorder and provide them with the tools they need to work toward recovery (5). This form of therapy is particularly effective when eating disorders run in the family and have passed through generations. It helps family members understand the condition and how it affects the individual and provides them with the skills and support needed to help the person recover. Additionally, nutritional therapy and medical management are beneficial treatments for eating disorders that can also pass down through families. Family education and coaching programs are also beneficial to supporting recovery.
The Toledo Center for Eating Disorders offers programming for individuals aged 10-17 of all genders. They also provide support for families of those suffering from an eating disorder. To access support and services, reach out via their contact form or call 419-885-8800.
- Eating Disorder Hope. (2023, January 30). Genetic factors behind eating disorders. https://www.eatingdisorderhope.com/blog/genetic-factors-eating-disorders
- Muhlheim, L. (2022, December 15). The different causes of eating disorders. VeryWellMind. https://www.verywellmind.com/what-causes-eating-disorders-4121047
- National Eating Disorders Association. (n.d.). What are eating disorders? Risk factors. https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/risk-factors
- Eating Disorder Hope. (2017, January 3). Eating disorders, environmental or biological?. https://www.eatingdisorderhope.com/blog/genetic-factors-eating-disorders
- Muhlheim, L. (2020, July 21). Family-based treatment (FBT) for eating disorders: Will it work for my family member?. VeryWellMind. https://www.verywellmind.com/what-causes-eating-disorders-4121047
Kim English is a Nursing Professor and has been teaching nurses at the undergraduate and postgraduate level since 2002. Kim has supported a family member through the lived experience of eating disorders and works to advocate for support in rural areas.