MSU study finds eating disorder link in genetics
The way people with eating disorders are treated could change after a recent study by MSU researchers.
Led by Kelly Klump, an associate professor in the MSU Department of Psychology, the study is the first of its kind and has found genetics can influence the development of eating disorders, especially in prepubescent girls with higher levels of estradiol, Klump said.
Estradiol, a type of estrogen found in nonpregnant women, is responsible for female characteristics, sexual functions and bone health.
The estradiol levels of about 200 sets of female twins ages 10-15 were examined in the study, which primarily focused on women.
“We’ve known since 1990 that genetics influence eating disorders,” Klump said. “Just like bipolar (disorder) or schizophrenia, eating disorders have just as much biological influence. We’re hoping that (the study) could help us understand why girls develop eating disorders more than boys and why it happens after puberty.”
Previous research has shown eating disorders can be influenced by environmental and psychosocial factors, but with the new research, knowing that they can be triggered by the amount of estrogen in a person’s system might help prevent disorders later in life, Klump said.
Currently, counselors trying to treat eating disorders target all girls in an age group, even though they might not all be at risk, Klump said. With the research, girls with a genetic history of a disorder can be identified and treated before there is an issue.
“This research was trying to figure out why,” she said. “What’s switching on the genes during puberty? And what we found is that increases in estradiol are apparently activating genetic risk for eating disorders.”
To Ronda Bokram, a nutritionist at Olin Health Center and the coordinator of MSU’s Respecting and Understanding Body Image, or RUBI, the study is long overdue. RUBI is an on-campus organization that promotes healthy body image for students, Bokram said.
“It’s really good to see research being done on this disorder,” Bokram said. “The exciting thing is that you can possibly intervene early if you know the clues, the markers then you can help.”
RUBI members post on bulletin boards, host events, organize Facebook events and, last year, drew chalk drawings across campus to get students’ attention concerning eating disorders. Bokram said RUBI will do all it can do to alleviate the problem.
“It’s a problem that just won’t go away,” Bokram said. “There are many different factors — it could be social, family, history of abuse, a person could have no genetic factors and still have an eating disorder.”
Although the study’s focus was on females, males are at risk for eating disorders as well, said William Walters, spokesman for the National Eating Disorders Association.
“10 million women and 1 million men suffer from eating disorders in the nation,” Walters said. “Males who are obsessively working out to get bigger are at risk for a different set of risks and consequences, but it’s not considered a disorder because it’s not anorexia.”
Whether the cause is genetic or social, Walters said eating disorders for both men and women can be a matter of self-image.
“In our society, the mirror reflection is more important than what’s going on in person’s heart,” Walters said. “That’s where eating disorders come from.”