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Your Jeans and Your Genes: Taking Eating Disorders Out of the Closet

Research is finding real biological reasons for eating disorders. They are finding physical evidence to show that people with anorexia have different mechanisms to regulate appetite and experience satiety than others.
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I was recently presenting at an eating disorder conference in Philadelphia, where I had the pleasure of meeting someone I laughingly call: "The Rock Star" of eating disorder Research.

Dr. Walter Kaye has been working for 30 years at National Institute of Mental Health, Pittsburgh Medical School and now UC San Diego, heading up research in eating disorders.

What I found fascinating and so exciting about his work, is that this research is finding real biological reasons for eating disorders; anorexia and bulimia. Specifically, they are finding, through brain imaging, specific pathways and physical evidence to show that people with anorexia in fact, have different mechanisms to regulate appetite and experience satiety than others. This is concrete evidence via looking at the brain.

Most individuals relapse when they go on a diet. People with anorexia, or who have the biological predisposition for this in their genetic history, and whom start a diet, may never be able to stop. They will, can and do, diet themselves to death. There is concrete evidence now via brain imaging, to show where in the brain this happens and how their appetite regulation is different than others.

I have been working in psychiatry for some time now, and I remember that even as I was beginning, we were still starting to recognize illnesses like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, as biological illnesses. There was a big shift in working with families at the time I entered psychiatry, as we moved from 'blaming the mother', to supporting families via psychoeducation, knowing that the old nature vs. nurture debate has changed.

This totally changed treatment and support for families to 'come out' and seek help. Things have changed from the time a friend of mine, whose wife had schizophrenia, would come out of family support meetings, where families were basically blamed, and yelled at. He says that families would walk around after these meetings, wandering to the parking lot, kind of shell shocked. That was part of 'treatment' with families.

Thanks to brain researchers like Dr. Kaye, we now know better. We have better systems and ways to treat all of these illnesses, and now we have more information to offer help to families who may be struggling with eating disorders.

We need to create an atmosphere that helps families however, come out of the closet, to seek help. As families are struggling and so quick to blame themselves, they need to know that they won't be yelled at. Or blamed. More and more evidence in brain imaging, is helping us work with families.

No matter how crappy or great a parent you are, you can't control for your child inheriting the biology for these illnesses.

Perhaps because weight and diet are given such value and heft, so to speak in our culture, we have a more difficult time separating out eating issues, and disorders, and knowing when the illness is coming out full blown, and needs to be treated.

Parents can really struggle. When diets are being posted everywhere and there is such an emphasis on thin, it becomes difficult to tease apart the issues and figure out what is going on, or how you can help.

There is a line. Many people in this culture have disordered eating. That is pervasive. Eating disorders though, are illnesses with biological aspects that are not the 'fault' of individuals or families.

Let's take our Jeans, and Genes, Out of the Closet.

For more information, visit Dr. Kaye at UC San Diego:

For more information about help with an eating disorder and resources: visit

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