What is the role of genetics in eating disorders among teen girls?


What you need to know

According to the Mayo Clinic, an eating disorder is a serious condition related to persistent eating behaviors that negatively affect one’s health, emotions, and ability to function in important areas of her(his) life. Most eating disorders involve excess focus on one’s weight, body shape, and food, which all leads to dangerous eating patterns. Eating disorders most commonly develop in teen and young adult years. Recent research shows that there is a genetic factor involved in eating disorders. The genetic component may actually account for 50% of the diagnosed eating disorders, and the other 50% is credited to environmental factors.  

Linkage to eating disorders has been found in serotonin and dopamine related genes like the D11S911 allele and estrogen receptor ß 1082/G allele. Other evidence for linkage has been found by studying families who have at least two eating disorder cases in their lineage. These studies expressed proteins similar to others in the study on chromosomes 4, 11, 13, 15, and the strongest linkage was found on chromosome 4. A study done at UNC found that all of the participants struggling with anorexia had anomalies on chromosome 12. There is still an abundance of new research being done about this topic, and currently there are twin studies being done to understand why teen and young adult females are the most at risk for developing eating disorders. Scientists are trying to figure out the genetic component since the environmental component is obvious. Females tend to be more body-conscious especially while discovering themselves through puberty, and they begin to feel social pressures during these teen and young adult years.

Another interesting finding is that the majority of the people who struggle with eating disorders also struggle with other mental illnesses. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (ODC) and anxiety are the two most often coupled with eating disorders. This makes sense for since eating disorders often begin with the obsessiveness of self-image and comparison to others. This also makes sense biologically since OCD and anxiety often run in families (genetic component) and/or are due to brain chemical imbalances hence why medication is helpful. 

There is evidence that there is a molecular genetic component to eating disorders but that research is new and inconclusive. After talking to Chelsea Hester, a local food and body image coach, genetics plays the biggest role in people who have family history of other mental illnesses that are hereditary. Mental illnesses like OCD, depression, anxiety, and personality disorders have a high comorbidity with eating disorders. Chelsea explained that people who have eating disorders often have underlying mental illnesses that make them more prone to an eating disorder due to their environment. Let me give an example for clarification: an adolescent girl with OCD is in at the doctor’s office, and he tells her she is slightly overweight for her height and age. Her OCD kicks in and all of the sudden she is obsessed with what she eats, she’s counting calories, looking in the mirror 25 times a day for a new flaw, and spending countless hours scrolling through models’ instagrams. This “trigger” by her doctor caused her to channel her OCD towards her weight and appearance. In a few short months, she ends up needing to talk to someone like Chelsea because she has lost a significant amount of weight and her normal life has become disrupted by her eating patterns. 

General signs/symptoms of eating disorders:
  • skipping meals
  • excuses not to eat
  • extremely restrictive diets
  • making separate meals from what the family is eating
  • lack of social participation
  • obsession with looking in the mirror
  • going to the bathroom in the middle of a meal
  • eating in secret

My response: what can we as a society do?

We live in a fat-phobic society that frowns upon curves and body fat. This stems from TV, social media, and all types of advertisement. 

If someone you live with is struggling:
  • get rid of scales
  • stop tracking calories and steps
  • turn down commercials on TV and the radio
  • be vigilant of them 
If a friend is struggling:
  • follow social media accounts with body diversity
    • unfollow the models and TV personalities
  • be observant of their eating patterns
  • encourage them to get help or talk to someone
    • be that person to talk to
  • try not to talk about your body image or your opinion of other’s bodies
If your child is struggling:
  • avoid talking about weight
  • turn down commercials on TV and the radio
  • try to incorporate a coach or therapist
  • be reassuring and positive
If you just want to be involved:
  • understand the causes of eating disorders
    • genetic
    • chemical
    • environmental
  • understand the symptoms and signs and be extra alert
    • eating disorders are easily hidden due to feelings of shame from other or themselves 
  • find contacts in your area to give someone who may be struggling
  • if you are a parent, do not force your child to finish their plate
    • allow them to listen to their body 
  • eat family meals
  • parents, communicate with your children
    • make them aware of different body types and comfortable in their own 
  • do not body-shame yourself in front of others 

How will you get involved?

Please respond in the comments below with answers to the following questions:

  1. After reading this, do you think you will be more vigilant of the symptoms of eating disorders?
  2. What is your opinion of the fat-phobic culture we live in?
  3. How would you like to see people’s perception of body images change?
  4. How do you think social media has progressed the prevalence of eating disorders?


Works Cited

Share this project
  1. April 24, 2020 by Angela

    I really enjoyed your presentation, Cecelia! It was great that you were able to provide suggestions specific to the different perspectives the audience may have. After reading this, I definitely will be more aware of eating disorder symptoms as I am more informed. I think the influence of media is large on the progressing prevalence of this disorder. This reminds me of a documentary I had watched called “Miss Representation.” If you haven’t watched it yet, you may want to check it out! Great job!

    • April 27, 2020 by Cecelia

      Thank you!! I will definitely watch that!

  2. April 24, 2020 by Anna

    I really liked your presentation and i think it provided some great information. I did my project on eating disorders in athletes so i think there are similarities between our topics. I think i knew a lot of the symptoms but not what to do if you saw them in yourself, a loved one, or friend. I think the fat-phobic culture we live in really fuels eating disorders. I’d like for there to be a focus on eating disorder and body image in health classes in schools and i also think there needs to be more diversity among models and actors. I think social media has made body love much harder and you are always being shown the perfect body. Plus a lot of influencers support diets.

  3. April 24, 2020 by Natalia

    This was a great presentation! I found the video showing all the photoshop that goes into an image very powerful and telling. I also really like that you included suggestions for people who live with/know someone with an eating disorder, because oftentimes it can be so hard to know how to help them. I think that social media has definitely increased the amount of people unhappy with their body or with eating disorders, especially in the earlier days. However, there is the rising body positivity movement, which I think is great, however, it can be followed by certain negativity. Some people just don’t understand the core message of body positivity, and think that loving your body is “promoting obesity”. Other people take it too far, and begin body shaming people who are on the skinnier side. I hope that one day our main focus will be getting people with eating disorders or other illnesses help, and celebrating the healthy bodies, no matter what they look like.

  4. April 26, 2020 by Alek

    Hi Cecelia! This is a super important topic you touched on and I really like how you mentioned the connection between other mental illnesses and eating disorders. I really hope this whole idea of idealistic body types end and social media is used for more positive reasons. I definitely think that social media and comparison plays a massive role in body image issues. Thank you so much for this information!

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.