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.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.