In this article we’ll untangle how genetic factors appear impact and shape eating disorders. This research is still being developed, but it is offering some important information about the causes of eating disorders.
Genetic factors appear to play a role in eating disorder development. There is not a single gene recognized as the cause of eating disorders. But there are numerous genes that researchers have identified as common among people who develop mental disorders. This likely explains why eating disorders typically show up alongside other disorders like anxiety, depression, substance use disorders, etc.
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Researchers have identified some differences in the frontal cortex and subcortical structures of the brain, areas of the brain that underlie the ability to control behavior and emotional responses. They’ve also found several brain areas, brain networks, and biological processes appear to play a key role in eating disorder thoughts and behaviors.
Twin studies of binge eating, self-induced vomiting, and dietary restraint suggest that these behaviors are roughly 46-72% heritable. Likewise, body dissatisfaction, eating and weight concerns, and weight preoccupation, show heritabilities of roughly 32-72%. A twin study released in 2023 found that avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID) is 70-85% inherited. This makes ARFID one of the most heritable mental disorders.
Epigenetics is a sort of code that triggers genetic activity. A person may have the genes that underlie mental disorders. But researchers agree that genes alone don’t cause mental disorders. Epigenetic triggers come from environmental conditions beginning in utero. They may even pass through generations in a family. It appears that epigenetics can be shaped by trauma, abuse, and neglect (physical and emotional). But our kids’ epigenetics are also shaped by everyday parenting behaviors and beliefs, beginning very young and often on a non-conscious level.
Epigenetics likely explains why there is often (but not always!) a correlation between parenting and child behavior and emotional well-being. Babies are born with very immature nervous systems. These systems are shaped by the environment. A baby learns how to get their needs met within months of being born, and their beliefs about the world and how safe they are within it shape their personality. This means that the level of stress or safety within a household has an often lifelong impact on the baby.
Epigenetics are also influenced by parental attachment, which is how safe, secure, and protected a child feels in a parenting structure. Parental attachment is separate from other aspects of parenting, such as disciplining, entertaining and teaching.
The majority of a person’s “wiring” or how they perceive and interact with the world, is likely present at birth. One major feature of this wiring is neuroception, a theory developed by Dr. Stephen Porges. This is a body-based sensation of being either safe or unsafe. It appears to be an inborn trait that is on a spectrum of sensitivity. Furthermore, it is heavily influenced by early childhood experiences, especially the security of their attachment with caregivers. It is estimated that about 25%[source] of the additional wiring in a human is set by age three.
Neuroception means that neural circuits in the body distinguish safety or threat and cue the body to respond physiologically, emotionally, and cognitively. When neuroception senses emotional and physical threats, the body responds with a state of fight, flight, freeze, or shutdown.
A person who has an eating disorder may have a more sensitive neuroception. This means they are living in a heightened state of threat, sensing danger in their body and mind and seeking comfort and safety in their eating disorder behaviors.
Importantly, while much of our wiring is “baked in,” we are also capable of re-wiring and changing neural patterns. This is a necessary element of eating disorder recovery. While parents cannot change their kids’ genes, they can support rewiring by increasing attachment, safety, and security in the relationship.
Genetic factors play a role in eating disorders and are often a cause of eating disorders. Therefore, parents can help kids recover by becoming aware of how these factors combine within their child to create an eating-disorder-friendly environment. The more you understand them, the better able you will be to support your child through recovery.
If your child has an eating disorder, you may think they are the only one who needs help. But make no mistake: eating disorders impact the whole family. And parents can make a tremendous impact on recovery. So please get support to help you navigate this process. If at all possible, see a therapist or coach to help.
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to help their kids recover from eating disorders, body image issues, and other mental health conditions. She’s the founder of More-Love.org, an online resource supporting parents who have kids with eating disorders, and a Parent Coach who helps parents who have kids with mental health issues.
Ginny has been researching and writing about eating disorders since 2016. She incorporates the principles of neurobiology and attachment parenting with a non-diet, Health At Every Size® approach to health and recovery.