Dangerous alcohol use and having an unhealthy relationship with food can be chronic, long-term problems and claim far too many lives each year. According to the National Institutes of Health, 1 in 6 people in the US have a drinking problem and approximately 10 million Americans are believed to suffer from potentially life-threatening eating disorders.

As people struggle for recovery, it's hard enough to tackle one of these issues but could there be a connection between the two? Could having one of these conditions put you at risk for having the other? A new study indicates there may be a genetic link between alcohol abuse and eating disorders.

The Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs recently published research conducted by Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis that reports that some of the genes involved in alcohol abuse also influence eating disorders. Earlier research indicated a possible link for women, but this latest study indicates a genetic predisposition is present in men, too. Their observation and data analysis suggests genes may explain 38 to 53 percent of the risk of developing these disorders and demonstrates that individuals with eating disorders also have high rates of alcohol abuse and dependence.

The study was conducted in Australia using information collected from 6,000 twins who had been involved in an earlier study on alcohol abuse and eating disorders. Both identical and non-identical twins were used for this study because they provided an opportunity to analyze behaviors present in those with the same genes and those that were present due to environment and upbringing.

In this new study, researchers focused on symptoms of eating disorders and compensatory behaviors. The symptom they studied was binge eating (consuming unusually large amounts of food in one sitting) and the compensatory behaviors included purging (vomiting) and use of laxatives and diuretics. Since earlier studies had already suggested a link between binge eating, purging, laxative/diuretic use, and alcohol abuse in women, the researchers decided to see if it was also present in men. They found that based on genetic and environmental factors:

  • Nearly 25 percent of men and 6 percent of women had ever been alcohol dependent
  • Almost 11 percent of men and 13 percent of women had ever had a problem with binge eating
  • About 14 percent of women had ever used two or more compensatory tactics such as self-induced vomiting or using laxatives

From this, researchers determined that overall there were significant genetic correlations between alcohol dependence and binge eating, alcohol dependence and compensatory behaviors, and binge eating and compensatory behaviors. They concluded that there are common genetic factors that underline why some people are vulnerable to alcohol dependence and eating disorders including binge eating with purging.

How can you use this information? This research may provide insight and reason for further research into the interconnectivity of certain destructive behaviors. It may allow people struggling with—or recovering from—eating disorders or alcohol abuse to be aware of their vulnerability to these other health issues.

For physicians and those who work with patients recovering from eating disorders or alcohol abuse, this research may help them recognize that patients may need information and attention that relates to both health problems.

LeslieBeth Wish, EDD, MSS reviewed this article.




Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs. Volume 74, 2013.

Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs. Issue 5: September 2013. 

"A Twin Study of Alcohol Dependence, Binge Eating, and Compensatory Behaviors". Melissa A. Munn-Chernoff, Alexis E. Duncan, Julia D. Grant, Tracey D. Wade, Arpana Agrawal, Kathleen K. Bucholz, Pamela A. F. Madden, Nicholas G. Martin, Andrew C. Heath