Is Bulimia Genetic?

Just like your facial features and the color of your hair, your risk of developing disordered eating may be linked to your genetics. Bulimia nervosa is an eating disorder hallmarked by episodes of uncontrolled binge eating, or overeating, followed by purging, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. People who experience bulimia nervosa, or bulimia for short, are likely to have family histories of physical illness, mental health conditions, and disordered eating. They are also prone to comorbid anxiety and mood disorders, which can exacerbate symptoms of bulimia nervosa.

Bulimia is commonly associated with purging after eating food, though there are many more symptoms of the condition that can be present, per Mayo Clinic. Signs and symptoms of bulimia nervosa can include a preoccupation with body appearance (particularly weight and shape), excessive exercising, feeling loss of control over one's eating habits, and the forced expulsion of food through vomiting or the use of diuretics or laxatives.

WebMD reports that when disordered eating first gained attention in the 1970s, the cause was blamed on parents who spoiled children. Today, that idea has been disproven. If parents do play a role in a child's risk of developing disordered eating, it's primarily through genetics (per Walden Behavioral Care). Additionally, many factors contribute to a person's development of bulimia, beyond just their genes.

Factors that influence bulimia

Researchers have identified mutations in two genes that can increase a person's chance of developing two eating disorders, bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa (via U.S. News & World Report). Having a mutation in the gene ESRRA can raise the risk of developing disordered eating by 90%, and a mutation in the gene HDAC4 can raise the risk by 85%. Mayo Clinic states that if someone has a first-degree relative, like a parent or sibling, with an eating disorder then they are more likely to develop disordered eating.

According to Walden Behavioral Care, genetics may influence a person's risk for developing bulimia nervosa, but genetics are not the sole determinant. Societal and social influences, as well as psychological, biological, and environmental factors all play a role in whether or not someone experiences bulimia or any other form of disordered eating.

Cleveland Clinic concurs that a person's risk of developing bulimia is a blend of genetic influences and learned behaviors, so developing bulimia is not inevitable if it runs in your family. However, if you know that you may have a genetic predisposition to it, then you should be aware of its warning signs, because if you do develop bulimia, seeking early treatment can help to unlearn unhealthy eating patterns.

If you are struggling with an eating disorder, or know someone who is, help is available. Visit the National Eating Disorders Association website or contact NEDA's Live Helpline at 1-800-931-2237. You can also receive 24/7 Crisis Support via text (send NEDA to 741-741).