Binge Eating? There's a Gene for That

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Scientists are now uncovering genes that may be responsible for different aspects of obesity. In one recent study, researchers discovered a gene that may be associated with binge eating.

What Is Binge Eating?

Binge eating generally refers to the act of eating excessive amounts of food over a relatively small course of time. Binge eating disorder has been recently defined as an overeating disorder that is associated with feeling guilty about the binge eating behavior and trying to hide the overeating.

Binge eating disorder has been associated with suicidal ideation and other eating disorders, and is newly recognized in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

Genetic Predisposition to Binge Eating

Scientists have now discovered a gene, known as the FTO gene, that may confer a tendency toward binge eating and development of obesity in adolescents.

The FTO gene also appears to be associated with effects on appetite, food intake, and body mass index (BMI). Based on recent study results, researchers now believe that there may be a relationship between FTO, binge eating, and obesity.

Appetite Genes

FTO and other genes have been found to be associated with regulation of appetite—and certain mutations of these genes may lead to a propensity for large appetites that lead to obesity. Specifically, this genetic propensity for overeating and obesity seems to appear early in life, around the time of adolescence.

In a study of nearly 1,000 patients in South Africa, scientists found four genetic markers (one of which involved the FTO gene) that were associated with higher BMI at the age of 13.

Another study looking at the effects of FTO in over 3,000 Chinese children found that the effects of FTO on higher BMI also led to an associated risk of high blood pressure (hypertension), which is known to be caused by obesity.

Yet another analysis found that the FTO gene (specifically, a particular polymorphism on this gene) predicts risk of cardiovascular disease, which is also known to be associated with obesity.

Further Research Needed

Further studies into the mechanisms and associations of FTO and similar obesity-related genes are ongoing. There is no current evidence that genetic testing for such genes is needed in the general population, and it is unknown how such knowledge, even if widely available, could or would change clinical outcomes. There have also been some inconsistent results in the various genetic studies, and those are still being sorted out.

What is certain is that the genetic basis of obesity remains an exciting and relatively wide-open field of research. We have every reason to expect more discoveries to come!


Lipsky RK, McGuinness TM. Binge eating disorder and youth. J Psychosoc Nurs Ment Health Serv 2015;53:18-22.

Micali N, Field AE, Treasure JL, Evans DM. Are obesity risk genes associated with binge eating in adolescents? Obesity (Silver Spring) 2015;23:1729-36.

Lombard Z, Crowther NJ, van der Merwe L, et al. Appetite regulation genes are associated with body mass index in black South African adolescents: a genetic association study. BMJ Open 2012;2(3).

Xi B, Zhao X, Shen Y, et al. Associations of obesity susceptibility loci with hypertension in Chinese children. Int J Obes (Lond) 2013;37:926-30.

Liu C, Mou S, Pan C. The FTO gene rs9939609 polymorphism predicts risk of cardiovascular disease: a systematic review and meta-analysis. PLoS One 2013;8:e71901.

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