The Connection Between Anorexia & Genetics 

Anorexia and genetics have a connection, although researchers aren’t exactly sure in what way.  If you have people in your immediate family who suffer from anorexia or other eating disorders, be mindful of that fact and consider adopting healthy habits to reduce your risk of developing an eating disorder yourself.

The Basics of Genetics

All life, including humans, use a substance called DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) as a medium to carry the instructions cells use to build molecules. DNA can further be broken down into genes. 

Genes represent a segment of DNA that contains the instructions to build a particular molecule or set of molecules. Different organisms have different amounts of genes in their DNA, with humans having about 20,000 genes. [1]

Genes are not the only thing that impacts a person’s health, but they are a significant predictor of a person’s likelihood to develop many different conditions. We also inherit our genes from our parents. So if your parents or grandparents developed a particular condition, your own risk of developing the same condition might increase if there is a genetic component. 

On a simple level, one can think of genetics as the “code” that your body uses to construct many of its essential parts. This code is imperfect and capable of mutations. If you inherit the wrong imperfections or your DNA otherwise mutates, this can cause health complications. 

Can Genetics Impact a Person’s Risk of Developing Anorexia?

In the broad sense, the above is valid and relatively important knowledge for understanding overall health. Still, it wasn’t known whether genes played a part in a person’s risk of developing anorexia. Some people suspected anorexia was a mostly cultural condition, with people mainly developing it if exposed to specific ideas, such as toxic rhetoric about the “ideal” body type, under the wrong conditions. 

Over time, we learned this wasn’t entirely the case. While culture can play a part in developing anorexia, research eventually revealed the neurobiology of people struggling with anorexia was often fundamentally different. [2] Their brain’s reward and punishment responses act differently than usual and skew how they react to stimuli. 

While the research is still ongoing, anorexia has been shown to be a genetic factor. [3] Eating disorders are known to run in families, but many researchers correctly note the nature of family units often means that members are exposed to similar environmental conditions. 

Twin studies did more to confirm the factor genetics plays. Both twins kept together and separated were shown to have a greater chance of developing anorexia if their twin siblings did when compared to the baseline.

Research is less clear on which specific groupings of genes may cause a person to be at increased risk of developing anorexia. However, some potential candidates include the following:

  • Serotonergic genes (genes responsible for the body’s serotonin systems)
  • Dopaminergic genes (genes responsible for the body’s dopamine systems)
  • Genes affecting neuropeptides involved in feeding regulations

No one or a small group of genes guarantees a person will develop anorexia later in life. It’s also been noted that the genes associated with a person having an increased risk of developing anorexia are often linked to increasing their vulnerability to other psychiatric disorders.

How to Avoid Anorexia if You’re At-Risk

If you have genes that increase your risk of developing anorexia or another eating disorder, this doesn’t guarantee you will develop it. 

The first step to reducing your risk of anorexia if you’re in a high-risk group is understanding if you have any kind of predisposition in the first place. This will help you remain more vigilant about your mental health. It should signal that you should see a mental health professional quickly if you start to develop some of the symptoms of an eating disorder, such as a poor body image or difficulties maintaining a healthy weight. 

Here are some tips for reducing your risk of developing an eating disorder: [4]

Don’t get your health advice from diet blogs or celebrity influencers. Instead, talk to your doctor about the weight range considered healthy for someone of your body type and the nutrients you should take. Your diet should include all recommended nutrients, including the calories you need for energy.

Eating disorders often skew a person’s view of what “healthy” is supposed to be. You can establish a baseline weight and diet to fulfill your body’s needs by talking to a doctor. As an added benefit, maintaining healthy body weight and getting proper nutrition carries a variety of other health benefits beyond decreasing your risk of developing an eating disorder. 

This diet doesn’t have to be restrictive; in most cases, it shouldn’t be. Instead, it may be based on general guidelines on the minimum level of nutrients you should take in for your diet to be considered healthy. 

People at risk of developing eating disorders or who have already developed one often “catastrophize” about food, meaning they expect unrealistically bad outcomes from certain dietary choices. For example, they may believe they are at risk of significant weight gain even if they eat significantly below their recommended daily calorie intake. 

If you’re already predisposed to negative thinking about food, avoiding these thoughts isn’t always easy. However, even making an effort to think realistically about the effect food can have, especially the positive effects specific dietary choices can have, may reduce your risk of developing anorexia and similar eating disorders. For example, even occasional “bad” meals, like sugary desserts, are unlikely to affect your health significantly if you generally make an effort to eat a balanced, nutritious diet. 

Similarly, try to think with the same rationality when considering exercise. Exercise in moderation and combined with a good diet is excellent for the body. Still, many people with eating disorders exercise excessively and don’t readjust their diet to account for the energy the body is burning. 

For most people, about 30 to 60 minutes of physical activity is advised about three to five times per week. Too much exercise may signal an underlying mental health condition causing one to push their body beyond what is healthy. 

It may help to read up on anorexia and similar conditions from reputable sources if you think you may be at risk. [5] See a mental health professional if you start noticing some of the symptoms in yourself, even if you still feel you haven’t lost total control. They can talk through your concerns and equip you with tools to better manage unhealthy thoughts about your body, eating, and more.

You can also preemptively talk with a mental health professional if you risk developing an eating disorder. Even for people in good mental health, therapy can benefit and improve their overall quality of life. 

Talking to a therapist about conditions that run in your family can prepare you for potential triggers if these conditions begin to develop for you. These professionals can also direct you to specialists if you show signs of needing more attentive care. Like all mental health disorders, the earlier treatment is sought for eating disorders, the better the long-term outcomes.

Avoid reading and watching content from sources that aren’t well-reputed on the topics of anorexia and other eating disorders. Unfortunately, the internet is full of a significant amount of misinformation and so-called pro-anorexia or pro-ana content. This content can reinforce the toxic mindsets many people with eating disorders develop about food and their bodies. 

When reading about eating disorders, focus on strong academic sources, like government websites and research journals. When you read reputable information, it will not accidentally or intentionally reinforce the negative thinking patterns anorexia, and similar conditions can cause. Stay away from all sites that glorify or otherwise positively focus on unhealthy body perspectives.

Resources


  1. What Is Genetics? (2022, May). National Institute of General Medical Sciences. Retrieved August 29, 2022. 
  2. Riva G. (2016). Neurobiology of Anorexia Nervosa: Serotonin Dysfunctions Link Self-Starvation with Body Image Disturbances through an Impaired Body Memory. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience; 10:600. 
  3. Pinheiro AP, Root T, Bulik CM. (2009). The Genetics of Anorexia Nervosa: Current Findings and Future Perspectives. International Journal of Child and Adolescent Health; 2(2):153-164. 
  4. Reducing Your Risk of Eating Disorders. (2022, April). Winchester Hospital. Retrieved August 29, 2022.
  5. Anorexia. (2020, May). National Library of Medicine. Retrieved August 29, 2022. 

Last Update |

Medical Disclaimer

Any information provided on the bulimia.com is for educational purposes only. The information on this site should not substitute for professional medical advice. Please consult with a medical professional if you are seeking medical advice, a diagnosis or any treatment solutions. Bulimia.com is not liable for any issues associated with acting upon any information on this site.