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Are eating disorders inherited?

Studies have suggested there could be a gene that contributes to eating disorders.

As summer approaches pressure mounts to have what society calls a 'bikini body'. Picture: Freeimages.com

JOHANNESBURG - As the festive season approaches, pressures mount to maintain what society labels as a 'bikini body', which can lead some down the path of harm and guilt about body image and eating behaviours,according a Johannesburg dietician.

While there is no single cause of eating disorders, more specifically of anorexia, studies have suggested there could be a gene that contributes to the disorder.

Chantal Walsh, a registered Johannesburg dietician says, "In the UK, point four percent of the population is affected by anorexia nervosa eating disorder. Women are mostly women although a small percentage of men also suffered from the disease."

Speaking to Talk Radio 702's Redi Tlhabi, Walsh said there are three main categories of eating disorders: Anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and eating disorders not otherwise specified.

"Anorexia nervosa is normally where the individual has an intense fear of weight gain, really restricts their total calorie intake and has poor body image. A normal Body Mass Index (BMI) range should be between about 19 and 25, while the anorexic person's BMI sits at about 17.5 or lower.

"With bulimia, we have what's called a binge and compensate - They have a very high calorie intake and they then compensate for it in the form of vomiting or the use of laxatives or excessive amounts of exercise.

"Bulimic individuals usually have a lot of stresses during the day and are looking for a release. Vomiting is often a release that they experience from the vomiting.

Walsh says binge eating, similar to bulimia, involves eating excessive amounts of calories in a very short space of time but not compensating for it.

"These are individuals that are often on fad diets, so they restrict their intake over a two to three week period trying to get their bikini body ready and all of a sudden, they get off the diet and then binge."

She says the disease is common in women between 14-18 years but there have been cases in some as young as eight.

For concerned parents, she says the signs are often very subtle.

"First, they become very conscious of the amount of calories they are eating and develop a poor body image, while the weight loss slowly starts to drop off."

But, there is a multidisciplinary approach to recovering from the disease beginning with addressing physical hunger.

"I make sure the amount of calories they should consume is achieved, not in excess or too little and that they are having it at the correct times throughout the day."

She says there is also the emotional hunger side, when psychologists and counsellors are called in to delve deeper into why when we've had lunch and are satisfied, but still want to have more afterwards. She says there are emotions are we trying to avoid or satisfy through the use of food.

Walsh says family is also a very important area of focus.

"The disorder doesn't occur because of the individual, the emotional environment plays a big role."

She says eating disorders are multi-faceted.

"It's not solely about genetics and while a gene could play a role, it's a lot to do with environment. Magazines encourage young girls to be as skinny as they can. There are emotional and psychological aspects at play."

Walsh suggests a website called recoveryspace.org for people who may be suffering from an eating disorder.

The website offers various ways of managing eating habits and helps people recover sustainably from the disease.

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