Is the Hunt for the Eating Disorder Gene Hurting Patients?

As the rate of eating disorders continue to grow, so grows the body of research aimed at identifying and understanding the causes of these disorders. Eating disorders impact the lives of more than 10 million Americans and have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, according to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA).

One such effort is the recent scientific push to identify a specific gene associated with eating disorders. Several studies, such as these two from the University of Pennsylvania and The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, have attracted many headlines for early indications of a genetic link.

The results are promising, but experts know this type of inquiry is in its infancy. This may not be so clear for the general public. Medical professionals are frequently approached by families and patients wanting to understand how genes influence the risk for eating disorders.

Experts in all fields can help clear misstatements and misunderstanding by explaining that more research is needed. Many resources from the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health echo warnings that research has not progressed to a point where it can be informative for either treatment or prevention because of the many factors impacting these complex disorders.

An article published in the Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America encourages medical professionals to help families and patients understand that eating disorders are complex. Researchers have a long way to go to make sense of all the different combinations of genetic and environmental factors at play.

What experts do know is that there isn’t one specific trigger or cause at work. This report details this research and suggests that health care providers of all kinds are best served by treating cases with individual attention and care.

Treatment Plans

Since eating disorders are often complex disorders experts typically require treatment plans provided by a team of experts that includes a primary care physician, dietitian, and a mental health professional. Academy for Eating Disorders also recommends that a team may also need the expertise of psychologists, psychotherapists and nurses to ensure that the patient’s full treatment needs are met.

The AED also encourages a multi-faceted treatment plan with options ranging from basic nutrition and lifestyle interventions to care or visits at a treatment center. Most approaches begin with an evaluative process to assess the severity of the individual disorder and then adjust an appropriate treatment plan accordingly.

The AED also encourages treatment plans to address as many factors impacting the patient as possible. These could be psychological, biological, interpersonal and cultural forces that contribute or maintain the eating disorder. Developing positive, healthy associations with food is a critical component of all treatments.

Cognitive-Behavior Therapy

Many experts use cognitive-behavior therapy as part of their treatment plans. Cognitive-behavior is a form of psychotherapy that puts emphasis on emotion and thought to change behavior. The National Association of Cognitive-Behavior Therapy offers many insights into the possibilities of this approach. Often therapy treatment involves a series of session beginning with an expert determining a treatment plan based on initial habits and behaviors and adjusting as needed.

This kind of treatment provides coping strategies that are individualized in order to create changes associated with thought and action, according to this article from the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. The article says these types of treatment plans are “widely accepted” as the treatment of choice for bulimia and that evidence suggests it is as effective with other kinds of eating disorders as well.

Cognitive behavior therapy often includes self-monitoring, therapy sessions and strict rules for nutritional needs. Therapists are actively engaged in helping the individual change self-image and action.

Out Patient therapies

Outpatient therapy is another method widely used to treat eating disorders as it can be less disruptive than in-patient therapy. Outpatient treatment may be individual, group or family therapy in combination with the support of a medical team. Support groups, nutrition counseling, and psychiatric medications have also proven helpful for some individuals, according to

Depending on the severity of the disorder an intervention with family and friends in a private, out-patient setting can be a way to help. The American Psychological Association (APA) encourages one such treatment through the Maudsley approach,  which uses a form of family therapy that enlists parents’ aid in getting the individual to eat again.

Residential care

Inpatient care, which may include hospitalization or a stay at a residential eating disorder facility, may be necessary if the disorder is life-threatening or the patient is experiencing severe psychological or behavioral problems, according to NEDA. Once the patient is ready to leave there is usually a period of outpatient, and follow-up care to work on the underlying issues impacting the individual.

Though genetic research may one day help experts take better care of patients, today’s best treatment plans place emphasize tailoring care to specific patients and their needs. Too much focus on the genetic component often fails to take into consideration the many environmental and psychological factors at work.

These self-destructive diseases are best handled with the patient is surrounded by family and a team of experts that can best see to his or her needs.