The Etiology Behind Eating Disorders: An Interplay of Biological and Cultural Environmental Factors
Disordered eating is a complex issue that comprises of a range of attitudes and behaviors. An eating disorder is defined as an illness causing serious disturbances to a person’s every diet. An example is eating very small food amounts of overeating. Eating disorders are variants of under-eating or overeating, whereby an individual does not eat in harmony with his or her needs. Some of the common types of eating disorders include Bulimia Nervosa, Anorexia Nervosa and Binge Eating Disorder. The debate over the years has centered on the cause of eating disorders. The debate narrows down to the question of nature versus nurture. The answer to this question is simple. There is no single factor that causes eating disorders. Instead, many factors such as family, cultural, biological and genetic as well as emotional and personality factors play a role. Therefore, biological and cultural environmental factors are not independent of each other. Rather, it is a mixture of the two that cause eating disorders.
Genes or Environment?
Giordano (1) observes that “eating disorders result from a complex interplay between environmental and genetic risk factors”. In supporting this claim, Giordana tries to examine diseases with heterogenous etiology. Two kinds of multifactorial diseases exist; oligogenic and polygenic. For oligogenic cases, only a small number of genes behave in a different way from normality and these are called gene variants. For polygenic cases, there are several gene variants that interact and act simultaneously. While many healthy people may have genetic variants that lead to complex diseases, they however do not develop the diseases fro which they carry the genes. What this means is that gene variants are not sufficient to cause these diseases alone. As such, Giordano (2) observes that research indicates that genetic explanations cannot capture several aspects of eating disorders. Therefore, non-shared environmental experiences also play a significant role in the genesis of the disorders. While genes might be responsible for the onset of eating disorders, it is genetics in interplay with environmental factors, social pressure and individual sensitivity that contributes to the scarcely understood conditions of eating disorders.
Medical writer examines why genes cannot explain Anorexia. According to Gura (2), biological underpinnings only form part of the complex mechanics of Anorexia. Gura notes “Anorexia Nervosa is rooted in both nature and nurture” (2). For example, a study indicated that when TV was introduced into a population of teenage girls in Fiji, eating disorders increased in about 3 years. Suppose a person is born with ‘bad’ genes that produce faulty neuro-circuits. This means that a person with such genes is a time bomb for unclear thoughts about body image. Then suppose an event happens in that individual’s environment that lights up the ‘fuse’ to this time bomb. This demonstrates that while genes might be the source of the disorder, the cultural environment creates an enabling surrounding or acts as a catalyst. For example, numerous studies indicate that trauma, bullying and sexual abuse are catalysts for eating disorders.
According to Bulik (1), “the intricate dance of genes and environment influences how at risk an individual is to succumbing to urges to binge”. Binge eating, a form of an eating disorder, is linked to genetic and environmental factors. Using the example of intelligence, children of parents who have high IQs are more likely to have high IQs. Such parents also tend to provide their kids with stimulating and rich environments. Therefore, while they might inherit genes for intelligence, they are also exposed to an environment that stimulates their minds. The same applies for eating disorders. Parents of children with eating disorders are likely to expose them to an environment that stimulates these behaviors. Over the years, there has been a rapid and extreme shift in the environment, especially cultural environments. With globalization of both the entertainment and food industries, cultures have adopted new lifestyles such as fast foods and television watching. Such cultural environments bring with them some cultural emphasis. For example, the cultural environment focuses on appearances such as thinness. People want to be like supermodels, singers, actors or actresses. However, instead of dieting, many people result to starvation. According to Carolyn (60), “increased dieting leads to an increase in eating disorders”.
However, there are those that hold the view that eating disorders are caused by human genetics and neurobiology. According to Gura (2), genes are responsible for the orchestration of behaviors by coding for neuro-chemicals that signal one another inside the brain. Other researchers also observe that eating disorders are as a result of dysfunctions in the central nervous system. Some indicate that the alteration of neurotransmitters is responsible for eating disorders. For example, Bulik (2) indicates that research shows that relatives of people who have Bulimia or Anorexia are 7 to 12 times at a higher risk for an eating disorder. As a result, the conclusion drawn is that an eating disorder such as binge eating runs in the family. However, these studies do conclude that the disorder runs in the family but they can’t establish why. Researchers use twin studies by exploring identical and fraternal twins to establish the interplay between genetic and environmental factors.
Therefore, despite the debate of nature versus nurture in eating disorders, it is clear that no single factor is responsible for eating disorders. Eating disorders are a result of a complex interplay of biological and cultural environment factors. While biological factors are mainly to do with genetic make-up, cultural environmental factors include parenting, family, media, life events, cultural notions, as well as emotional and personality issues. Gura summarizes this interplay as, “genes perform the act of loading the gun, environment does that of pulling the trigger” (4). Eating disorders can only be explained by models that take into account biological factors such as genetics, personality factors such as behaviors, thoughts and feelings, and social and familial contexts where people live and grow up.
Bulik, Cynthia M. Binge Eating is Linked to Genetic and Environmental Factors. Eating Disorders, 2012, pp. 1-6.
Carolyn, Costin. 100 Questions and Answers about Eating Disorders. Burlington, MA: Jones and Bartlett Publishers, 2007.
Giordano, Simona. Genetics May Not Play a Significant Role in Eating Disorders. Eating Disorders, 2012, pp, 1-2.
Gura, Trisha. Genes Cannot Explain Anorexia. Anorexia, 2010, pp. 1-4.