The inevitable January advertising of “New Year, New You” has arrived, and with it, the societal pressure to drop weight.
For some, this can be motivating, even good—after all, America’s obesity rate is at a record high, according to research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But for many, the pressure to lose weight can be quite triggering, especially for those predisposed to developing eating disorders.
Longstanding research has shown that eating disorders can be hereditary, meaning some people are simply more likely to develop them than others. But new research from the Eating Recovery Center shows there might be a more specific genetic link than previously thought.
“The risk of developing an eating disorder is largely inherited, meaning that people with a family history of eating disorders are more likely to have one, but the identity of which genetic variation increases that risk is unknown,” Michael Lutter, who works as an attending psychiatrist for the Eating Recovery Center, told The Daily Beast.
Lutter researches the genetic and neurobiologic basis of eating disorders; his goal is to find a very specific genomic mutation that could cause eating disorders. While the genomic mutation he’s looking for most likely affects a very small amount of people, it could be a game changer for treating eating disorders.
Lutter compared his search for this gene to that of breast cancer’s BRCA1 and 2 mutations.
Individuals with those mutations have a much higher risk of breast cancer, but only three percent of breast cancers are caused by these mutations, according to the CDC.
Similarly, “we are trying to find something similar in the eating disorder population. If we can find the rare mutation, then it gives a better understanding of the underlying neurobiology of eating disorders,” he said.
Lutter’s latest research sequenced the genes of 93 unrelated people with eating disorders, some who restrict their food and some who binge eat. It’s pretty uncommon for an eating disorder patient to struggle exclusively with anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorder, as people will cross over disordered eating behaviors in their lifetime, Lutter said, so the two groups of patients that were tested was a fair sample for this study.
He found specific links in two different genetic variations. For restrictive eaters, the variant is called neurotensin, which works in the brain to regulate appetite and tells your body it needs more food. For binge eaters, it’s called glucagon-like peptide 1, a hormone released by the gastrointestinal system after meals to tell you when you’re full.
These results don’t surprise Lutter—he says the fact that people with eating disorders would have genetic mutations for genes involved in appetite and fullness makes sense—but they had never been seen before. Still, the findings are in their preliminary stages; they can’t be applied in a clinical setting yet.
“Right now there’s no way to use genetics to guide treatment but it does offer a better understanding of the pathophysiology of the illness that we can do these studies and measure levels of these hormones,” Lutter said. He thinks that we’re close to developing treatment for eating disorders based on genetics in the next 10 or 20 years.
Lutter said that what’s exciting is that there are drugs on the market that could target the hormones in the genetic variations his research found. For example, some diabetes medications might be able to restrict one’s urge to binge eat. “There are good drug targets so there are a lot of new potential leads for researchers to develop new treatments,” he noted.
Until then, however, the New Year’s resolution madness can be quite challenging.
Lauren Muhlheim, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist for Eating Disorder Therapy LA, says that while this genetic research is important, it’s also relevant to know that there is no one single cause of someone’s eating disorder.
“They are very complicated illnesses that don’t stem from a single cause but from a complex interaction of biological, psychological and environmental factors. And I don’t think you can ever tease it apart,” she said.
Those environmental factors? The huge focus around losing weight or becoming a “better” version of yourself for the New Year.
Even though research shows that 80 percent of New Year’s resolutions (the top two being exercising more and eating healthier) fail, it’s easy to buy in to the idea that you need to lose weight, specifically at a time when we’re bombarded with messages that target body insecurities.
“I can’t remember who said it, but someone once said that the diet industry is brilliant because it’s the one product that repeatedly fails and makes you believe that it’s your fault,” Muhlheim said. “People are very susceptible to the newest fad diet, so I think it’s a very challenging time of year to people who are susceptible to eating disorders, especially with social media. We’re getting more bombarded than we have in the past.”
How do you know if you’re susceptible to eating disorders? As it’s a very complex disease, it’s impossible to pinpoint this, but Tom Hildebrandt, Chief of the Division of Eating & Weight Disorders at Mount Sinai Health System, told The Daily Beast that some things to take note of are whether or not you’re in an environment where restriction and dieting is valued in a critical way, are extremely stressed or are going through a big transition in your life—whether that’s high school to college, college to adulthood, becoming a parent, or even going through menopause.
“The thing about this time of year is really not to get caught up in the swarm of information that comes from peers, social media and advertisers trying to sell you fixes to it,” Hildebrandt said. “Try to insulate yourself against that stuff.”
This, of course, is easier said than done. Muhlheim suggested curating a healthy, body-positive feed on your social media channels and consuming culture that steers away from harmful messaging. Muhlheim recommended following the hashtag #haes, or “healthy at every size,” and #intuitiveeating—a quick search yields registered dietitians like Claudia T. Felty and Alissa Rumsey, whose feeds are all about having a healthy relationship food—or downloading podcasts like Love, Food.
That said, eating disorders are dangerous. If you or someone you know is struggling, it’s important to get an evaluation by a physician or a therapist, Muhlheim said, referring those who may be binging or purging, is preoccupied by obsessive thoughts about food, is having trouble functioning normally, or is skipping social events to contact the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline or the Eating Recovery Center.