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Exploring new ways to treat and prevent eating disorders

Research awardFellows Award programme

Funding period2018-2021

InstitutionUCL

Location United Kingdom

Conditions

How does appetite and a parents’ approach to feeding impact the development of eating disorders?

The project 

Eating disorders like anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder are serious mental illnesses with life-limiting impacts. Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. And these conditions are a huge public health problem costing the UK around £15 billion a year.

Eating disorders often arise before age 18 and around a quarter of young people report having some symptoms. However, we have limited understanding about how they emerge, so prevention is impossible and treatments often take years to have impact. 

Research into these conditions has previously focused on psychological risk factors, like image and self-esteem, while behavioural and biological factors have been largely ignored. Potential advances in how we protect and treat those at risk could be being missed.

Dr Clare Llewellyn and her team at UCL are looking at two factors in childhood that may be crucial in understanding the development of eating disorders – appetite and parental feeding strategies. 

The process

Clare’s previous work has focused on obesity. Eating disorders and obesity are both problems related to food intake and are heritable, suggesting some similarities.

Her studies showed that a child’s appetite is influenced by both their genetics and their parents’ approach to feeding them, impacting weight gain and a child’s risk of obesity.

Clare will now investigate whether these factors play a part in behaviours related to conditions like anorexia nervosa (which involve undereating) and bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder (overeating).

To find out, she will analyse data from twins, where mental health, genetic and parental factors have been tracked from birth through to teenage years. This will allow her to see how appetite and parents' feeding practices impact on eating habits in adolescence. This could allow us to predict who may be at risk of developing behaviours associated with eating disorders.

The potential 

Clare’s findings could be used to inform parents on healthy eating practices and offer the opportunity for early detection of eating disorders through screening programmes. The results could even inform the development of new treatments, like drugs targeting appetite.

Ultimately, this work will provide new knowledge about the emergence of these debilitating conditions – and how we could prevent them from developing.

Supported by the MQ Rosetrees Fellowship. The MQ Rosetrees Fellowship has been fully funded thanks to the generosity of The Rosetrees Trust. MQ would like to express our appreciation to them for their critical support.

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