Monday, March 5, 2007

Starving for Perfection: Anorexia Nervosa has a Strong Genetic Component

The problem surrounding teenage eating disorders as a direct result of the media’s portrayal of thinness and beauty is an issue that is gaining great attention. However, while many feel mainstream media (such as ad pictured on left) is to blame for mental health problems related to eating, such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia, some researchers argue that the etiology of these afflictions may be primarily genetic. The ongoing, decade long study, The Genetics of Anorexia Nervosa Collaboration, funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has revealed that the disorder may be biological and inherited. One of the principal investigators of the study, Craig Johnson, states that it is 12 times more likely that a person will develop anorexia if someone in the family suffered from the disease. Although researchers have found strong genetic components, they also emphasize that the environment plays an influential role. In Dr. Johnson’s words, “Genetics loads the gun, the environment pulls the trigger.”

The NIH used this information to file an article countering the recent statement made by Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bundchen (pictured on right) claiming that unsupportive families cause anorexia nervosa, not the fashion industry. This statement is unaware and misinforming because it “only perpetuates misconceptions and further stigmatizes eating disorders,” says the NIH press release. Yet, after the research was published, a skeptical Bundchen declared: “Everybody knows that the norm in fashion is thin, but excuse me, there are people born with the right genes for this profession.” Gisele is 5’11 and weighs 125 pounds, yet she emphasizes she has never suffered from anorexia because she “had a very strong family base.” Nevertheless, statistics show that most fashion models are thinner than 98% of American women. This makes one wonder how it is they manage to stay so thin, and amidst such denial, how prevalent eating disorders truly are in the fashion industry.

If weight related problems were not an issue in the world of modeling, as Bundchen seems to think, Spain, Italy and London would not have, in the past year, created a minimum Body Mass Index, BMI, of no less than 18 for models. Spain was the first country to ban size zero models from the catwalk. “They are concentrating their efforts on promoting a healthier body image,” declare regional official Concha Guerra. This action was taken following the death of Luisel Ramos who after suggestions from her agency to “lose a couple of pounds,” acquired the much desired size zero and died of heart failure after stepping off the catwalk. Ramos’s tragic death shows that although research is concluding that anorexia has biological origins, societal pressures can too lead women to take their dieting and exercising regimens far beyond healthy limits to reach the “ideal” body type.

Although the principal investigators of The Genetics of Anorexia Nervosa Collaboration feel their research can aid the development of prevention methods for those who have the genetic predisposition, what can be done to help individuals who develop the disorder due to cultural pressures? Walter H. Kaye, professor of psychiatry in the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine says, “Many individuals in our culture, for a number of reasons, are concerned with their weight and diet. Yet less than half of 1 percent of all women develop anorexia nervosa, which indicates to us that societal pressure alone isn’t enough to cause someone to develop this disease.” However, a teen (like young girl pictured on left) looking for information about eating disorders on the Internet can easily be misguided. There are websites that consider the disease a “lifestyle,” they have come to be known as “pro-ana” sites. These web pages contain links to tricks and tips about fasting, food listed into calorie and carbohydrate categories, and excuses, broken down by parent strictness (i.e., casual family, moderately strict family), for avoiding meal times. With outrageously disturbing advice like “hunger hurts, but starving works” and a list of 10 commandments for not eating, the first one reads: “Thou shall not eat because you ARE a big fat cow. No one wants to tell you. But you know.” How strong mentally does a person have to be so that information like this does not affect them? Especially since teenaged girls are often vulnerable during such a critical period of development. The images and statements made in “pro-ana” websites can be very traumatizing to an already confused mind.

Thankfully most search engines have removed links to these webpages and many have been shut down. Nonetheless, they can still be accessed and do present serious danger. Anyone with availability to a computer with Internet connection can maneuver around the restrictions and find a "pro-ana" site. Which brings back the question of what extent genetic influence has on eating disorders when there are so many societal pressures and norms to be followed. “Pro-ana” sites make it clear that not eating, for some, is a consciously made decision. So it appears the linkage to biological factors is minimal. However, if there really is a connection to genetics, overall, does the environment play a bigger role? Psychologist Bulik of Virginia Commonwealth University, is of the opinion that, "Sociocultural factors are only important in that they might elicit an expression of someone's pre-existing genetic predisposition." Hence, the debate is on-going, scientists attribute a greater link to genetics, while society focuses more on apparent cultural factors. Fortunately, the issue is now exposed and preventive measures can now be developed to avoid an increase in the number of those affected.

no food untill im this skinny