Demystifying the Genetic and Environmental Influences on Disordered Eating

Genetics play an important role in the development of eating disorders and disordered eating behaviours. To date, many (over 30!) twin studies have been done and all but two found significant genetic effects on the development of eating disorders and disordered eating. However, no methodology is without limitations and tentative conclusions become more convincing when the findings are confirmed using different experimental approaches.

Twin studies, while they offer many advantages, are not that good when it comes to detecting shared environmental effects on a particular trait (literally, evens that happen to both twins and affect them in the same way). Fortunately, twin studies are just one of several different ways that researchers can use to study heritability(A quick reminderHeritability measures the amount of the variability in an observable trait/behaviour that can be attributed to genetic variation. This is NOT the same as … Continue reading →

The Genetics of Thin-Ideal Internalization

The Tripartite Model of body image dissatisfaction postulates that three factors (peers, parents, and media) affect body image dissatisfaction and disordered eating through thin-ideal internalization and appearance comparison.

Thin-ideal internalization is the extent to which one accepts or “buys into” socioculturally defined beauty standards of thinness. The idea is that the more someone internalizes these standards, the more likely they are to engage in behaviours to achieve their “ideal”, and the more likely they are to develop an eating disorder.

A growing number of of studies have been done evaluating the validity of this model. Although I’m not well-read on the subject, it does seem like there is a growing number of studies showing an association between thin-ideal internalization and disordered eating practices.

But is the picture complete? Are peers, parents, and media the only or even the main factors that influence the extent of … Continue reading →

Demystifying the Genetics of Eating Disorders – Part II

In my last post I talked about some methods that scientists use to study the genetics of eating disorders. I focused on a subfield of genetics called behavioural genetics (which you can think of as a field that attempts to understand, in part, the interplay of genetics and environment in behaviour). In this post I’ll shift gears and focus on molecular genetics. I’ll be working of the same review paper by Drs. Zerwas and Bulik (2011). Molecular geneticists study the structure and function of genes on a molecular level. For example, they try to understand how different mutations or alterations in the genetic code can affect protein function and lead to disease states.


Genetic association studies are hypothesis driven. This means that researchers make a list of genes that are known to be involved in biological mechanisms or behaviours that are affected in eating disorders, such … Continue reading →

Demystifying the Genetics of Eating Disorders – Part I

Today I thought I’d take the time to do an overview of what researchers know about the genetics of eating disorders and try to clear up some common misconceptions. The bulk of the content in this blog post comes from a very nice review paper published in 2011 by Drs. Stephanie Zerwas and Cynthia Bulik on the genetics and epigenetics of eating disorders. In an effort to keep blog posts short, this will be a multi-part mini-series.

When it comes to the genetics of eating disorders, there are two main questions that research ask: What is the relative contribution of genetic factors to eating disorder behaviours? And what are those genetic factors? I’ll talk about research attempting to answer the first question in this post and the second question in my next post.

In order to understand the role that genetics plays in influencing eating disorder behaviours, researchers use family, … Continue reading →