Skip to Content

Nature VS Nurture: What are the Key Factors to Developing an Eating Disorder?


We inhabit a culture that worships thinness and perfection, which brings into question whether eating disorders arise from our exposure to the "thin" obsessed media, or from something we are born with.

Researchers have begun to look into these questions and have found that when it comes to anorexia, genetics and the environment both play important roles.

Major Components

The study conducted by Dr. Cynthia Bulik and her colleagues, first looked into well-known personality characteristics and co-morbid psychiatric disorders that are commonly found in anorexia nervosa sufferers.

Patients struggling with anorexia tend to be perfectionists and can be obsessive. Many anorexics also struggle with major depression, anxiety disorders, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Many times these conditions are present in patients prior to developing an eating disorder and can persist after “recovery.”

Researchers point out that many of these co-morbid disorders can arise from environmental pressures, but that many of these conditions can also be present from birth. The precise influence of genes and the environment will vary from person to person.

For some individuals, genetics may be the main factor, while for others, the environment might play a more important role in leading to anorexia. What this means, is that finding adequate and effective treatment for eating disorder patients, may be more difficult than it was initially thought.

The Risks

Bulik and her colleagues also analyzed the risk factors of anorexia that have been well-established. They present the following list: gender, history of childhood eating problems, sexual abuse, negative self-evaluation, and family history.

However, the researchers point out that these risk factors are problematic. The reason, they claim, is because it is often difficult to differentiate between a risk factor and an early symptom.

A Family History

In studies conducted with families it was found that first-degree relatives, are at a greater risk of developing anorexia, than those with relatives with healthy controls. It was also shown that people with a family history had a bigger likelihood of suffering from disordered eating behavior.

What this means is that people could exhibit eating disordered behaviors that were not specific to anorexia, and could develop other eating disorders such as bulimia if there had been a history in their family of any eating disorder.

Finding the Genes Responsible

Although family studies have shown that genetics play a large role in the development of eating disorders, these studies do not shed light on what specific genes and gene variants contribute to the development.

Human molecular genetic studies are currently being developed in the hope of finding the genes responsible for putting someone at risk of anorexia. Researchers claim that the question at hand is not whether genetics plays a role in the development of anorexia, but rather what genes or variants are responsible.

There are many candidates that are currently being studied such as genes involved in regulating appetite, eating behaviors, anxiety, depression, pleasure and reward, and other traits commonly found in anorexic patients. However, many of the present findings still need to be studied and replicated in larger population samples.