Geneorexia nervosa?

Daniel MacArthur got me thinking more about one possible path forward in the personal genomics front in the Genetic Future the other day. And today there’s another post that reinforces my thinking even more.  I think there’s a new condition coming along.  No, it doesn’t exist. Yet.  I checked the all-knowing-google-oracle and there were no entries for it.  But…I’m starting to think this is a direction we could go.  There are people in my circle of acquaintance that are becoming borderline obsessed with organic foods.  I don’t just mean they are trying to lose weight or eat better.  There are people who are fearing any food item that comes near them or their family and friends.  It is interfering with their work and social lives.  They are oddly unhappy despite being so supposedly healthy….dna_construction

As I was getting especially concerned about one person I know, I decided to consult teh google-acle to see if there was anything about “organic food eating disorder”.  And it turns out there is discussion about one: Orthorexia nervosa.  I found a number of press articles about it, a handful of PubMed articles, and a very disturbing YouTube video by a guy that I had seen on an ABC news story about this topic.  As I watched him on the ABC story, and his behaviors looked very disturbingly like something I saw in this acquaintance.  It is not a recognized diagnosis at this point, I am aware.  But it looks like a phenotype to me–one that I’ve seen.

I’m not opposed to organic food.  I’m not opposed to eating local and fresh produce.  I’ve been a member of a local CSA for years.  BUT–I think I’m starting to see some people take it too far.  It is becoming a quasi-religious quest for purity.

The reason this worries me is because I think the same thing will happen with personal genomics.  Not everyone will take it too far, I know.  And this isn’t a reason to stop it the train we are on–much good will come from it.  But there will be a proportion of people who take their genetic information (which I know is of varying utility at best right now to those who have been sequenced ), and they’ll change their diets.  They’ll upend their and their family’s lifestyles.  They will be in fear of substances, of foods, of fabrics, of everything–beyond reason.  And they’ll buy products and services of dubious quality–even potentially dangerous ones.

I think it will be Geneorexia nervosa.

Certainly it won’t affect everyone.  And even those affected won’t have the same degree of it.  And it may not manifest itself as only food-related.  I expect it will also be skin creams, and vitamins, and bio-supplements of various sorts, stem cells (real and fake) and ozone or electrical treatments, and all the other quacky stuff snake-oil peddlers have been using throughout the centuries.

Maybe it isn’t that much to worry about, because it will be just more-of-the-same.  I guess my concern is that if everyone has their genome sequenced, a higher percentage of those susceptible to these behaviors will have access to this kind of information, and many many many loci of concern.  Friends who are deep into it will mock and belittle those who aren’t doing enough (I’ve seen this from the organic purity friends).  Parents will feel distraught about whether or not they are doing the right thing for their kids.

It’s the potential for the anxiety–billions of bases of it–that concerns me.

I’m seeing some parallels from the organic purists and the anti-vaccinationist groups.  They are inordinately obsessed with what they know is going into their (and their kid’s) bodies.  They are susceptible to the same charlatans.  I’ve been trying to understand what’s going on, and I think it is control.  There are too many things out of their control in this planet right now, and they are latching on to a few things they can control.  And they are latching like barnacles.  I think they are going to do it with their genes.

Maybe it will be the same percentage of the population.  Maybe there’s a gene for it, and we’ll find it with personal genomics.  But will we be able to treat it, or will they mistrust anything we try…but believe the charlatans…??

The internet is going to be the front line in this genomics tsunami.  Doctors don’t have the time or the information depth right now to handle it.  People will turn to the internet–for good and for bad–on their genes.  There’s going to be frustration.  There’s going to be misinterpretation.  There will be bad decisions.

I dunno.  I hope I’m wrong.  I would hate for an anti-science backlash to develop against this the way it is on GMOs and on vaccines.  It is tiring and sometimes dangerous.

And I’m not suggesting we should stop the march to personal genomics.  After the transition probably things will moderate and it will all be fine.  But I’m looking at a bumpy ride.

8 thoughts on “Geneorexia nervosa?

  1. Terry

    Your comparison of anorexia to future “gene worriers” is a good one. Therapists often find their client’s eating disorders have co-morbidity with obsessive-compulsive disorders, anxiety, or other mental health disorders. Eating disorders often result from “self medicating”; controlling food intake is much more concrete and gives more tangible results (weight loss), than addressing the complex underlying issues. As you pointed out, some people will react in a similar manner once Personal Genomics is common place. People carrying a SNP that increases their risk for a disease can’t change their genetics so they will turn to more controllable elements. Most people will be rational as defined by the health community (i.e. increased examinations) but a few people will be extreme in their controlling as happens with eating disorders. These people will be vulnerable to quack treatments, excessive testing, or extreme diets that supposedly have an effect on the disease. In the end the benefits of personal genomics far out-weight the risks but it is important to discuss these issues to anticipate future challenges and avoid backlashes.

    One other comment…
    Orthorexia = orthos- “correct or right”, and orexis -”appetite” = “correct appetite”
    Anorexia= an-“without”, orexis-”appetite = “without appetite”
    Geneorexia = gene appetite?

  2. Mary

    Ok, maybe it isn’t perfectly correct from the Greek…. :) You may invent any suitable phrase you like. It was just fun to come up with something that didn’t exist in the Google yet!

    But some people may overfeed, underfeed, or specially feed their genes.

    I already know someone who was choosing the “blood type diet” or something of that sort. So I guess technically we may already be seeing the beginning of it.

    Mere speculation on my part, though. And I know the benefits for most will be tremendous.

  3. guy

    the same person who wrote the ‘blood type diet’ already HAS a book on the ‘genome diet’.

    although he identifies genome on the basis of a series of external characteristics and blood type. what a buffoon.

    the problem, of course, is there are hosts of sick people with no recourse — desperate to try anything.

    the other side of this is that there are legitimate nutritional diseases, e.g., celiac disease, where a genetic test would be welcome. unfortunately, patients are flocking to determine MHC haplotype (which has been associated with celiac) as opposed to a more direct causal solution.

  4. Mary

    Oh, god, The GenoType diet. And all the woo already on the web site….sigh….

    And so it ensues. Thanks for the tip.

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