New Research Sheds Light on Multiple Factors Involved in Eating Disorders

In the past, eating disorders were primarily considered to be behavior. This overly-simplistic misunderstanding of the issue only created more stress for those suffering. Loved ones would tell you to snap out of it as if it were just a choice. Through the ages, doctors often attributed eating disorders to external causes. Eating disorders were blamed on cultural pressures or parents. At one point, doctors considered eating disorders a glandular problem.

Thankfully, times have changed, and eating disorders are now taken more seriously and understood as complex conditions with multiple contributing factors. With advancements in medicine and research, our understanding of eating disorders has improved exponentially in just the last decade.


Some studies have found that there is a genetic link to eating disorders. One gene, in particular, was found to contribute to the development of anorexia specifically(1). The Anorexia Nervosa Genetics Initiative recently connected researchers across multiple countries so that they can share their data on genetic research in people with anorexia nervosa. These efforts are aiding how science understands what may be a fundamental underlying issue.

The Brain

Breakthroughs in neuroscience have shown us that there is more to eating disorders than will power (such as with food avoidance disorders) or lack thereof (such as with binge-eating disorders).

Researchers are more and more beginning to realize that the brain is what plays the biggest role in whether or not someone develops an eating disorder, not external or environmental pressures. Brain research has shown that people with different eating disorders across the board have one thing in common: a maladaptive approach to food.

Brain reactions for people with anorexia may make eating an unpleasant activity. People with binge-eating disorders may have abnormal brain activity that fails to signal them that it's time to stop eating. Other people who may be deficient in certain neurotransmitters may be craving sweets or carbohydrates to compensate because the sugar in these foods stimulates the release of neurotransmitters.

Compounding matters, nutritional imbalances can further exacerbate some of these brain issues. A big key to understanding eating disorders may be in unlocking the brain functions behind them.


The more researchers can understand that eating disorders are multifactorial, the more health care providers are equipped to help treat people suffering from them.

Therapy and behavior modification is still essential in helping to treat the habits and compulsions of those with eating disorders. Still, without an understanding of the brain functions and genetics, these treatments have mainly been hit or miss. With the new research into genetics and brain chemistry, health care providers can prescribe more well-rounded therapies that deal with all of the underlying factors.

(1) Translational Psychiatry

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