Symptoms of ED

This post will be short, since I'm rather crunched on time, but I couldn't let this little bit of research pass by without mentioning. The study, titled "Binge eating disorder: a symptom-level investigation of genetic and environmental influences on liability," was published in Psychological Medicine and found that approximately 45% of your risk for developing binge eating disorder was due to genetic factors.

(As a quick but important aside, the "45% of your risk" bit doesn't mean that 45% of people with BED have the disorder because of genetic factors and 55% have it for other reasons. Nor does it mean that 45% of your "risk" for developing BED is genetic and 55% is due to environmental/cultural factors. What it means is that 45% of the reason that one person has BED and another doesn't is their genetic differences. Class dismissed. There may be a test.)

Not that this isn't important and interesting--which it is--but what I found interesting was how the authors looked at inheritance of BED. Rather than looking at BED as a distinct entity, they looked at the heritability of the individual symptoms of BED, such as loss-of-control eating. It turns out that over the past decade, research into the genetics of EDs has begun looking at the heritability of specific symptoms of these eating disorders (Klump, Kaye, and Strober, 2001) rather than "anorexia nervosa" or "bulimia nervosa."

Don't get me wrong- no one ever expected to find an anorexia gene or a bulimia gene. That's just not how the body works. But the thinking was that genes influenced susceptibility to anorexia, bulimia, etc. In fact, behavioral geneticists have been looking how the different symptoms of EDs are inherited. No doubt some frequently travel together, which is why we do see distinct patterns in eating disorders. But there's also a fair bit of heterogeneity in eating disorders, in that most people don't fall into a strict diagnostic category. Besides saying that our diagnosis of EDs sucks, this factor says we don't really know what's going on beneath the veneer of ED symptoms.

I don't know the answer to this, but it's an interesting question.

(I am shrugging off the I'm-a-Bad-Blogger feeling for writing such a hastily thrown together post that's short and doesn't delve into the issues very well. I apologize if any of you were disappointed!)

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mariposai said...

Let me be the first to say that:

a) I found this interesting
b) You are not a bad blogger (far from it!)
c) Your posts never disappoint me :-)

Sarah x

Anonymous said...

Agree with Sarah! You rock :)

Cathy (UK) said...

I agree that your posts, however short, are always intersting Carrie.

What interests me about a lot of genetic research is that although it's fascinating, and helps to explain why things happen with our minds and/or bodies, what such research often cannot do, is to provide a solution.

In terms of physical diseases, knowledge that we are at risk of developing (e.g.) cancer, or heart disease may mean that we need to be extra careful to avoid identified lifestyle risks. More radically, if a woman has a genotype that increases her risk of breast cancer manyfold, she may choose to have a double mastectomy to avoid what is effectively a timebomb within her.

But with mental illnesses, including EDs... How does knowledge of our genotype actually help in the prevention, and perhaps also the treatment of EDs?

Cathy (UK) said...

*interesting* (not intersting)...

Typo, not brainfart :)

Anonymous said...

Congratulations on your embracement of imperfection.
See, we can temper the display of our genetic traits.

Adrianna said...

What I like about this research is that it starts to deconstruct the idea that we are all binge eaters and need to put the fork down and live on a street corner that doesn't have McDonald's. Nor are we all emotional eaters who just need to grow up. (A couple of hateful, inaccurate stereotypes of those with BED).

BED symptoms are heritable. They will respond to environmental cues that lead them to binge eat but only if the individual has the gene.

Dr. Ravin said...

In response to Cathy's comment, the knowledge that one is genetically predisposed to a certain mental illness is actually quite helpful in prevention, early diagnosis, and treatment. People who are genetically vulnerable to mood disorders, for instance, should be very careful to stay well-rested (as lack of sleep can trigger manic or depressive episodes in those who are vulnerable), well-nourished, have a strong social support system, and lead lower-stress lifestyles. People who are genetically predisposed to addictions should not, in my opinion, drink alcohol or use illegal drugs at all, and should refrain from taking addictive prescription or OTC medications if at all possible. People who are genetically predisposed to eating disorders should never diet or fast, should take extra care to stay well-nourished, avoid food-focused occupations (e.g., culinary school), and hobbies or careers that demand a certain body type (e.g., modeling, figure skating).

Katie said...

I love M's comment - publishing a post that you are not 100% satisfied with is probably good exposure therapy for OCD/perfectionist issues ;)

This is so interesting, and it's great that research is being done into BED as well as the other disorders. Like Adrianna said, the general public seem to think that eating disorders are a matter of willpower or some other personality trait - anorexics have it, the other guys don't. That's a load of rubbish. I've never felt less in control of my mind or my behaviour than when I was very underweight. Thanks for your clarification on the 45% business, I have been wondering exactly what the percentage was of.

Carrie Arnold said...


I agree- I think it's not only important for others to stop judging people with BED as insatiable, greedy pigs, but also so people with BED stop judging *themselves* that way.


I don't know that this genetic research will necessarily lead to a "cure" for EDs. We know a lot about the genetics of cancer, and although we've dramatically improved treatments, we don't have a cure, either. But knowledge of what causes eating disorders drives how we develop treatments for them. Genetics can also help with early intervention- for example, if you're perfectionistic and anxious and your parent had an ED, maybe going out for the cross-country running team isn't the best idea.

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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