Is bulimia in your genes?

Catherine Liberty's picture

I recently read an article as part of eating disorder awareness week that highlighted singer and actress Demi Lovato’s thoughts regarding the origins of her eating disorder. 

I think I was born with an eating disorder because I’ve never had a relationship with food that was normal.”  - Demi Lovato


The idea of having been born with an eating disorder is something that I could really relate to. Just like Demi, before recovering from bulimia I could never remember a time when I had been entirely “normal” around food. 

Is it possible to be born bulimic?

My entire childhood was dominated by episodes of binge eating and dieting, both of which I distinctly remember offering comfort in a confusing and scary world.  But it goes further than that too, at just a few months old my parents were advised to “water down” my milk because of my insatiable appetite. 

So of course, the idea that I was born with some kind of genetic predisposition to silence my every emotion with food crossed my mind a lot in the past, but luckily, the idea that I was born this way, never stopped me from believing that I could change. 

This is in deep contrast to Demi Lovato, who heartbreakingly said she believes “there’s no cure” and that bulimia is “a life-long disease”.

What I wish I could say to Demi Lovato

1. I wish I could tell her that people are recovering from their eating disorders every single day, going on to live unimaginably free lives. No longer thinking of food as the enemy, no longer hating their bodies, no longer craving the numbness that bingeing and purging can bring. Not just living in a perpetual state of “recovery” but actually recovering.  

2. I wish I could show her that eating is a skill that can be learned, even if you never remember a time when you had a normal relationship with food. 

3. I wish I could help her to believe that having a genetic susceptibility for bulimia is not a life sentence – even if you feel you were born with an eating disorder, it does not mean you can’t recover.

4. I wish I could encourage her to explore every possible recovery avenue. For me online bulimia treatment was the key and that is something I NEVER would have expected. For her it may be something else but the answer is out there.

Let’s imagine that geneticists are one day able to test for bulimia...

The fact remains that your genes alone still won’t define your destiny. 

As Lynn Grefe, President and CEO of the National Eating Disorders Association – (NEDA) says,

[if you’re genetically predisposed to bulimia then it’s like] you're born with the gun, and society -- your cultural and environmental circumstances -- pulls the trigger."


What triggers bulimia genes?

One theory that comes up time and time again is the idea that food restriction plays a part in triggering bulimic genes. 

Does dieting trigger the genes for bulimia?

I wholeheartedly endorse the overwhelming amount of research that indicates food restriction is the mechanism that allows for the development of bulimia. In fact I’ve never met anyone who developed bulimia without initially restricting their food. 

The idea of bulimic genes being triggered in this way helps to explain why not everyone who diets or restricts their food goes on to develop bulimia.

Howard Steiger, director of the Eating Disorders Program at McGill University in Canada states that even “modest dieting” may flip the genetic switch that leads you to become bulimic. 

Of course this is just one example of a potential eating disorder gene trigger, and there are many more theories out there. But the good news is that everything scientists do know about genetic predispositions indicate one important thing...

Your genes are not your destiny!

So even if you feel you were born with an eating disorder, as I once did, there is no reason why you can not make a complete recovery.

I’ll probably never know if I was genetically predisposed to developing bulimia, but I do know that by nourishing my body, learning how to overcome binge urges and eat normally, developing strategies to effectively deal with stress and learning how to appreciate myself, I was able to make a full and complete recovery, regardless of my genetic makeup. 

Let me leave you with a few wise words...

Eating Disorders Specialist Carolyn Costin sums up the debate on eating disorder genes by saying… 

 The new research on the genetic predisposition that contributes to the development of an eating disorder unfortunately seems to contribute to the notion that one cannot fully recovery.  


My genes are the same as they were when I had anorexia nervosa but I am different. I make different choices, I think differently, other things are more important to me now.” 


If you’d like to learn more about our bulimia treatment success then exploring our recovery stories section is a great place to start!


ardnassac79's picture
Catherine, thank you for this

Catherine, thank you for this article! As with most of the information I keep finding on this site, a few points really hit home - including the part that I need to believe that I really can teach myself how to eat properly, even though I too can not remember a time when I wasn't fixated on food and body image.

Another point that caught my attention is the line that my genes don't necessarily have to be my destiny. I just finished reading the part of the book that deals with the body's natural "set point" and how we can look to our parents to get an idea of what our natural body weight should be - which scares the crap out of me! My father is greatly overweight, and my mother has consistently gone through her ups and downs... and it's hitting me as I write this - they have their own issues with food - except they never went all the way into an ED. My father definitely goes on binges, and my mom was always yo-yo dieting when I was growing up. So knowing that I don't have to be destined to follow in their footsteps if I learn to eat healthy food that nourishes me in good ways, I can hopefully avoid the scary thought of being overweight like them.

Again, thanks for the great articles - they are wonderful motivation!

Tania's picture
Catherine, another amazing

Catherine, another amazing and much much needed article: how do you possible find every single time such interesting and so much needed topics to discuss and clarify from a recovery-for-life perspective?! :-) There is so much confusion, so much misunderstanding and misconception around bulimia, especially when the perspective is always the same one: it's an illness and there is no cure. I am so tired of this, but I have to admit I also start to find compassion for all the ones, me first of all, who believed all this until.. yesterday! Catherine, another BIG, HUGE THANKS for your granitic appetite of knowledge (no term has been more appropriate :-) and for being an Infinitive source of reflection and inspiration.
I have been repeated maybe hundreds of times the story about the fact that thanks to my healthy appetite I saved myself from a very rare illness I contracted when I was 4. My parents kept telling me for years that thanks to that I fought it back and I recovered. It's been one of those stories my family kept telling for Christmas to relatives and all. Your article just made me thought about it again. Today I would say that it was rather my distinct survival energy that saved me, not the food intake in itself. This is what I rely my recovery from bulimia upon: the food intake is a "tool" I am learning again, but the reasons why I am recovering is my survival energy. I don't believe I was born with bulimia really, as I wasn't born with the obsession of being slim and with the inability to feed myself as I need. I believe that being raised with "bread & depression" (which is the term I use to use when I think about my family history and the serious illness of my father) wasn't the best for a very sensitive and highly responsible kid like me and for sure this has a lot to do with the fact that I wasn't taught how to take about myself, but is that mean that I was born with depression in my DNA? Same for bulimia.. I read a lot about depression and yes there are studies which discovered the genes of depression. But does that mean that each baby who born with those genes is going to suffer of depression? Well that is not demonstrated: the environment as well as the personal ways to cope with the things of life will say that. Huge debate.. I see the same for bulimia, and what you write makes so much sense to me Catherine.
Superlative article, cannot stop feeding myself with so much needed knowledge! :-)

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