Seeing Double: Twins Have a Heightened Risk of Eating Disorders

With how frequently eating disorders are brushed away “cries for attention” or “just the behavior of young girls”, it can be easy to forget that these life-threatening disorders are far from something a person can control.

Eating disorders are serious medical conditions and there is strong evidence the cause of eating disorders is rooted in genetics and biology, not simple controllable behaviors.

A recent study from Sweden adds to this evidence, finding that twins and other multiples are more likely to develop eating disorders like anorexia. The study found that twins are 33% more likely to be diagnosed with anorexia later in life than the general population.

“If one [identical] twin has an eating disorder, the other twin is more than two times likely to have an eating disorder as well,” said Nicole Siegfried, Ph.D., told Fox News. Siegfried is national director of eating disorder program development for Castlewood at The Highlands Treatment Center in Birmingham, Alabama.

In addition to these findings, a report published in the journal Directions of Psychiatry found that if one fraternal twin has anorexia, there is an 11% chance the other twin will develop an eating disorder as well.

While some believe the increased rate is evidence of a genetic basis for eating disorders, some researchers believe other factors involved in living as a twin could be influencing the chance for anorexia and other eating disorders.

For example, Siegfried points out that identical twins, in particular, have a living mirror of someone who looks just like them.

“In some ways, because of some of the identity issues that can play out in eating disorders, you can use that as a comparison in a way to differentiate yourself,” Siegfried said.

Dana Harron, a clinical psychologist in Washington, D.C., also suggests that natural competition between twins could be a factor.

“In a ‘twinship’ you have a special set of challenges that you don’t necessarily have as an only [child],” says Harron. Because twins are raised in the same environment, with similar life pressures, and develop at the same time, they are more likely to compare themselves more harshly than other siblings might.

Living with the same home environment could also influence someone’s chances for eating disorders, as twins experience similar home stresses which may be amplified in a household caring for twins.

While the research shows that twins are more likely to experience eating disorders, considerable more investigation is needed to pinpoint what factors drive this risk in both twins and the general population.

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