• Thu, Mar 1 2012

Eating Disorders Aren’t Hereditary, But Family Behaviors Can Contribute

Eating Disorder Awareness Week

While there certainly are examples of mothers and daughters who both struggle from an eating disorder, it’s debatable whether diseases like anorexia and bulimia are truly hereditary or not. According to some, there may be a genetic component. But according to others, family behavioral components are more to blame. So which is it?

To find out, we talked with Lauren Grunebaum, a New York-based psychotherapist who specializes in treating families and individuals with eating disorders. While she doesn’t believe families are directly responsible for creating eating disorders, she says there are certain predispositions and behaviors within the family that can contribute to the disease.

Do you believe that eating disorders like anorexia, bulimia or binge eating, can be hereditary?
I believe that some individuals are born with a predisposition to developing an eating disorder. It is a combination of stresses in their environment which set the eating disorder in motion. Environmental triggers can include, family communication patterns, conflicts surrounding age appropriate separation and individuation, peer pressure, cultural messages, and academic pressures. Eating disorders often occur at times of transition such as beginning college.

How many young people who have an eating disorder today also have a parent or other close family member with the disease?
I know that there are young people suffering from an eating disorder who have close relatives with an eating disorder. However, I do not know the numbers or statistics.

Can you share any examples of eating disorders in families?
I have had clients where the mother has had an undiagnosed eating disorder. I do not want to go into detail. What I am comfortable saying is that the mother had distorted perceptions about food portions and calories. This greatly influenced the daughter who became extremely calorie-conscious and had great difficulty sitting down to a meal.

The daughter also became competitive with the mother about weight and body shape.

Is the hereditary aspect of an eating disorder related to a genetic component or behavioral traits?
I am not a scientist nor a researcher. However, I believe that the actual hereditary aspect of an eating disorder is linked to a genetic component. The sufferer may also learn eating disorder behaviors from people in their environment.

In what ways can a parent trigger or pass on an eating disorder to their child? Are there certain behaviors or traits that someone with an eating disorder can do that would also leave other family members susceptible to the disease?
Other ways parents may contribute to the development of an eating disorder may be setting unrealistically high standards for their child (the never ending quest for perfection), not allowing age appropriate decision making, physical or emotional abuse, not respecting their child’s voice (what I mean by this is not allowing the child to express her feelings and helping the child to feel that her feelings are valid and valued).

If a parent or family member has an eating disorder, what can be done to prevent another family member from also suffering from this disease?
I believe awareness is vital. If a family member (such as a parent) can admit that he/she has an eating disorder then she can at least talk honestly to her child about it – about how it has negatively affected her (the parent) both emotionally and physically. Also, if the child begins to display eating disorder behavior the parent can immediately seek out professional help. Encouraging health, not weight, is also helpful in discouraging the onset of eating disorders.

When leading eating disorder workshops or treating clients I say that some people are born with a predisposition to developing an eating disorder. I am often asked if parents cause eating disorders and parents often wonder if they are to blame. I always emphasize that no one thing or person is the cause of an eating disorder. Eating disorders are much more complex with multiple contributants. I never blame parents. In treating children and adolescents, it is crucial to include the parents in therapy though–they can be significant supports in their child’s battle against the eating disorder.

Photo: Shutterstock

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  • Kathleen Fuller PhD (@HUGirl)

    Many twists and turns convolute the path and the process when healing eating and weight issues. Each person’s journey is unique, but certain behavioral similarities are fundamental at the start for nearly everyone who is affected.
    This may surprise you, but the sociocultural roots of diet and weight issues are hidden deep in plain view. They are found in the often unspoken and generally accepted expectations we hold about the world in which we live. These expectations are primarily determined by the combined attitudes of people who comprise this culture and society.
    Let’s learn to love our bodies as women and men.

  • Colleen

    The author asks the question, “Are eating disorders hereditary?”, then doesn’t answer the questions. Instead, she interviews someone who is not a researcher or a scientist or an expert on this aspect of EDs, but a treatment provider. While her anecdotes are interesting, what qualifies Lauren Grunebaum to comment on this topic?

    The answer is that eating disorders are 50-80% hereditable, based on twin studies of twins raised apart. That’s a pretty good scientific way to separate out the role of heredity vs. environment. And wow–that’s a significant genetic component.

    Why then does this headline proclaim “Eating Disorders Aren’t Hereditary, but Family Behaviors Can Contribute”?

    Was any research done at all on this topic?

    It would have been interesting to hear from a genuine expert, such as Dr. Cynthia Bulik, Dr. Michael Stroeber or Dr. Walter Kaye–researchers who have actually studied the hereditability of eating disorders.

    Ms. Grunebaum’s information about the triggers of eating disorders are out-of-date. Eating disorders are biological brain disorders that are triggered by a period of malnutrition (dieting, overexercising, illness, growth spurt, low-fat or restricted diet, etc). You can find evidence-based information at http://www.feast-ed.org.

    It’s unfortunate that more thought and effort wasn’t put into this article.

    • Stars and muses

      Glad you found a place to push your agenda, but you’re wrong. I happened to stumble across this article, and I’m 99% sure one of the patients discussed above is me. My mother was the one with the undiagnosed eating disorder.
      I was adopted, and while I definitely have genetic brain based traits that predisposed me to this, my family flat out gave me the choice of being fat (even though I wasn’t fat by any standard, just a solid athletic kid) or being considered a fellow human in their eyes.
      After growing up being constantly degraded for not being a tiny, skinny, perfectly girly (I’m also gay) replica of my mom, becoming skinny became a survival choice. If throwing up, exercise binging, and starving myself was the ticket to being treated like everyone else instead of ostracized, rejected, and starved, it was worth it.