Genes play a part in development of eating disorders

EDNew research from Michigan State University has found that genetics may make some women more vulnerable to the pressure to be thin.

In turn, this could develop into an eating disorder as pressure to be thin and low self-esteem can lead to both women and men trying to control their weight leading to anorexia and bulimia.


Scientists at the US university explored the role of genetic factors in whether women 'buy into' the pressure to be thin by studying sets of twins.

More than 300 female twins aged between 12 and 22 were used in the study, whose results are published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, to see how vulnerable they were to pressure to be thin.


The researchers decided to investigate this issue as everything from size-zero models to airbrushed celebrities leads to thinness being portrayed as equalling beauty in Western culture.

Young women suffering with eating disorders often cite the thin-ideal as the main cause of their symptoms.

Jessica Suisman, lead author of the report and a researcher in the University's department of Psychology, commented: "We're all bombarded daily with messages extolling the virtues of being thin, yet intriguingly only some women develop what we term thin-ideal internalisation.

"This suggests that genetic factors may make some women more susceptible to this pressure than others."

To reach these conclusions, Ms Suisman and her team measured how much participants wanted to look like people from films, TV and magazines.

Once these statistics were collected, the team compared the results of identical twins who share 100 per cent of their genes with the results gathered from fraternal twins who share 50 per cent.

The team found that identical twins have closer levels of thin idealisation than fraternal twins, suggesting genes have a role to play in the development of eating disorders.

Further analysis showed that the heritability of thin idealisation is 43 per cent, meaning genes account for almost half the reason for eating disorders.

The environment is also an important factor in terms of developing eating disorders because the researchers found differences between twins' backgrounds had a greater role in the development of thin idealisation rather than wider cultural attitudes as was once thought.

So, it seems there are plenty of reasons why people develop eating disorders, including genes, environment and low self-esteem, which may also be attributed to how people feel about themselves and peer pressure.

As a result, it means eating disorders cannot necessarily be prevented if genes have a part to play but they can be cured if help is sought from a treatment clinic or medical professional.

Regardless of the reasons behind an eating disorder, they are very serious and help should be sought if someone is suffering from one.

The biggest indicator that a loved one has developed an eating disorder is a five per cent loss in body weight over just one month.

This is certainly the case for anorexia but bulimia sufferers may still be within the normal body weight range as they will make themselves sick after a binge to prevent themselves from putting more weight on.

It can therefore be very hard to detect an eating disorder in a loved one, especially in the early stages.

Leanne Thorndyke, head of communications at eating disorder charity Beat, gave some advice on what to look out for in a loved one.

She said: "Family members should look out for changes in behaviour, mood swings, absenting themselves from family meals, withdrawal from social life, losing weight or failure to gain weight - children should gain weight steadily as they are developing, and being afraid of becoming fat or afraid of the fat in food itself."

Despite these signs, it can take a while for families to detect an eating disorder as sufferers will often go to great lengths to hide it, Ms Thorndyke added.

So what do you do if your child has an eating disorder? Well, the last thing you should do is blame yourself as there are a number of factors that contribute to the development of the condition, such as genes.

The best thing to do is just be there, listen and support them in a non-judgemental way and help your child talk about their worries, suggested the expert.

One way of doing this is to seek professional help from a treatment clinic as the sooner a sufferer gets help the sooner they will recover.

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