Applying epigenetic science to the understanding of eating disorders: a promising paradigm for research and practice

Curr Opin Psychiatry. 2020 Nov;33(6):515-520. doi: 10.1097/YCO.0000000000000632.


Purpose of review: Studies indicate that environmental factors, acting at various moments throughout the life cycle, can result in epigenetically mediated alterations in gene expression. In this article, we review recent findings on the role of epigenetic factors in eating disorders, address methodological issues that need to be considered when interpreting research findings, and comment on possible clinical applications.

Recent findings: Evidence suggests that eating disorders implicate alterations of methylation in genes involved in the mental status, metabolism, anthropometric features and immunity. Furthermore, some research in individuals with anorexia nervosa suggests the presence of reversible, malnutrition-induced epigenetic alterations that 'reset' as patients recover.

Summary: Epigenetic studies in the eating disorders corroborate the idea that eating disorder cause is multifactorial, and identify markers that could help inform our understanding of illness staging and subtyping that may explain the commonly progressive course of these disorders, and that may provide insights towards the development of novel interventions. Already, there is evidence to suggest that, in people with eating disorders, epigenetically informed interventions help reduce stigma and shame, and increase self-acceptance and hopes of recovery. Although findings are intriguing, further research is required as, to date, studies apply modest sample sizes and disparate methodologies.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Causality
  • Epigenomics* / methods
  • Epigenomics* / trends
  • Feeding and Eating Disorders* / epidemiology
  • Feeding and Eating Disorders* / genetics
  • Feeding and Eating Disorders* / psychology
  • Gene-Environment Interaction
  • Humans
  • Research Design