What Genetics Have to Do With Eating Disorders

Rebecca McConville - Angie Viets - Genetics and eating disorders

Are you one of those that feel like you must go to a thousand stores to find the perfect “jeans” without taking into consideration whether it fits your “genes”?  What we generally fail to recognize is that thousands of years of genetic makeup cannot be altered by “perfect” eating, supplement taking or hours spent exercising so you can fit into your ideal “jeans”.  However, you can either: change your jeans, rock your Mom jeans (click here for a good laugh) or accept how your “genes” look in any pair of “jeans”!

A case in point was the unfortunate news when Bob Harper suffered a heart attack while exercising at his New York gym. Bob Harper has been the face of “perfectionism” with his gospel preaching of clean eating and fitness. Harper reported during his interview on Fox News, "I fainted one time in the gym, I started having these dizzy spells and I just kind of overlooked them. I just adapted which was one of the dumbest things to do. I kicked myself over and over again about that.” In another interview, it was revealed that Bob’s mother had a heart attack around the same age and upon genetic testing was found to have high levels of lipoprotein A.

When I compare genetics and how they associate with health, strangely my mind wanders to a Ron White skit at Thanksgiving dinner with his siblings (now before you panic where I am going with this-HOLD ON). While I have no siblings of my own, my husband does. His sister is a geneticist, his brother is a judge, and my husband is the funeral director. These siblings share genetics (DNA) but are vastly different in their personalities, looks, and careers, yet each brings different lenses on how to view life and health.

Brandi, my sister-in-law (geneticist) studies how genes evolve over time and has a great understanding of what the likelihood you will have a health risk is or the probability that you'll be diagnosed with a health condition. My brother-in-law, Jim (judge), is a judge in a true sense. He excells in listening to both sides of a story as to what is uncontrollable (genetics) and what can be controlled (environment/behavior). Last but not least, my husband, the funeral director, probably has the most valuable lesson of all….. I will save that for the end!

Just as Bob Harper could not eat and exercise his way out of a heart attack, individuals cannot “willpower” their way out of an eating disorder, “eat clean” enough to control their cholesterol, think enough “positive thoughts” to overcome panic/anxiety, or simply “count their blessings” to overcome addictions. For people to accept living in the body given to them, they must consider their genetics (DNA). 

A person inherits genes from each parent, as well as the cultural /socioeconomic experiences from his/her family. Inherited genetic variation within families clearly contributes both directly and indirectly to the pathogenesis of a disease.

Here are a few examples of genetic influences:

  • The University of Iowa and the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center studied single families in which eating disorders were common across generations. They found that people with mutations in two different genes – ESRRA and HDAC4 – had a 90 percent and 85 percent chance of developing an eating disorder, respectively.

  • A study published in the June 2013 issue of the Journal of Anxiety Disorders underscored that certain anxiety traits correlated with panic disorder are evident by the age of 8.

  • Many other health conditions have strong genetic links: obesity “thrifty” gene; alcoholism, breast cancer, & heart health.

So why does my husband, the funeral director, have the most to learn from? While you can’t control or change your genes, you can control how you choose to live your life. At funerals, you will hear stories of those with longevity and prosperous lives and how they didn't sweat the small stuff and accepted that there are just some things you can’t change except maybe those mom jeans. Besides, when you take that last breath you won’t, nor would you likely want to be remembered for your cholesterol number, pounds lost on diet or your perfect eating.

Angie Viets - Rebecca McConville

Rebecca McConville, MS, RD, LD, CSSD is a Master’s Level Registered Dietitian & a Board Certified Sports Specialist. She specializes in the treatment of anorexia, bulimia, compulsive overeating & exercise addiction. She also treats the female athlete triad & athlete-associated disordered eating. Becca understands that the drive for peak performance may lead to disordered eating. Her goal is to help you fuel your body, so that you can fuel your life! Visit her website.