Two studies that appeared in the Archives of General Psychiatry reveal that eating disorders run in families. The first study showed that genetic factors accounted for more than half of anorexia cases among more than 31,000 twins in Sweden.
“We were able to show for the first time that there is a substantial genetic component to anorexia nervosa,” researcher Cynthia Bulik, PhD, told WebMD.
The second study showed that binge eating tends to run in families. “Basically, what we’re finding out is that eating disorders are familial disorders,” says Bulik, who worked on both studies and is an eating disorders expert at the University of North Carolina (UNC).
Writing for MSNBC, Stacy Lu recently claimed a relative of a person with an eating disorder is ten times more likely to have the illness than someone without a family history of disorders.
Lu explained that Deborah Belfatto worried that her 12-year-old daughter might have an eating disorder when she eliminated all fat from her diet and started getting unusually thin.
But Belfatto was reluctant to confront her child’s anorexia, as are many mothers who resist acknowledging their child’s eating disorder because sometimes they’re struggling with their own food issues.
Cynthia Bulik, author of “The Woman in the Mirror: How to Stop Confusing What You Look Like with Who You Are,” says a mother with an eating disorder or body image problem herself may be hesitant to act, not knowing herself what constitutes normal eating.
“This is such a hot button issue for them, and they don’t want do convey any of that to their kids through these blind spots,” she says.
Lynn Grefe, president and CEO of the National Eating Disorders Association, says that for too many years parents have been blamed for their child’s eating disorders.
“Mothers are always wondering if they shouldn’t have said their hips were too big,” Grefe said. Now, moms are getting self-conscious about what they’re allowed to say, and what they’re not. It’s become a tricky business.”
Belfatto says mothers find it difficult to deal with the shame of failing. “And let’s face it, an eating disorder is a mental illness,” Belfatto says. “Who wants to admit their child has a mental illness?”
Lu warns that the fear of confronting such a serious illness is also a factor, and adds some studies suggest that as many as one in five anorexics die. And treatment can take years and involves a family commitment.
“So many parents say, ‘I hope this is a phase. I hope it will just pass.’ But you have to go with your gut,” Bulik says. And the sooner treatment begins, the more likely that an eating disorder can be cured.
Kids Hiding Signs
One mother, Judy Avrin of Totowa, NJ, found bits of food her daughter Melissa had chewed and spit out hidden in a drawer. “I realized then we had a problem,” she says.
Melissa died at age 19 of complications of bulimia, binge eating followed by purging using vomiting, laxatives or excessive exercise.
Bulik suggests that if you suspect your child has a problem, it may help to discuss it with your doctor for advice and support before approaching your child. There are also many advocacy groups that help families struggling with the issue.
“It can be such an isolating thing. So hearing from other parents and getting their support can make parents feel more confident about bringing the issue up with children,” she says.
Two places to get support:
FEAST, a site for family members of someone dealing with the illness.