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Skinny Genes?

An Interdisciplinary Look at a Complex Behavioral Disorder


Joan-Beth Gow
School of Professional Studies
Anna Maria College
Lisa A. Carpino
Department of Psychology
Anna Maria College


This case study introduces Megi, an active teenager who has recovered from anorexia nervosa.  The method of progressive disclosure is used to take students back in time as Megi recalls the physical and psychological aspects of her illness and the long path to recovery. The case was designed to be interdisciplinary as students grapple with the underlying causes of anorexia and particularly with the relative contributions of genetics vs. environment. The case conveys the complexity of anorexia and how societal perception of the disease and its cause has changed over time. The case has been used successfully in psychology and genetics courses with both majors and non-majors. The case could be readily used in biology courses and could be adapted for use in a nutrition or nursing course. Optional extensions to the case provide for more in depth reflection on the history of eating disorders and how society's perception of these complex illnesses has changed over time.


  • Identify the current diagnostic criteria for anorexia nervosa according to the latest edition of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
  • Make empirical observations that reflect the characteristics of anorexia and define it as a medical condition.
  • Integrate key concepts such as nature versus nurture, twin studies, complex patterns of inheritance and epigenetics to understand anorexia from a multidisciplinary perspective.
  • Develop skills in critical thinking.
  • Distinguish popular misconceptions based on stereotypes from facts based on research data and diagnostic criteria.
  • Outline how the role of family and society has changed over time in the understanding of anorexia.
  • Explore eating disorders as a complex interaction between genes and the environment.
  • Analyze graphic data to evaluate the contribution of both the environment and genetics to multiple psychological disorders.


anorexia; eating disorders; nature vs. nurture; heredity; twin studies; behavioral disorder; psychological disorder; genetics; family dynamics; cultural influence; epigenetics

Topical Areas

Social issues

Educational Level

High school, Undergraduate lower division, Undergraduate upper division



Type / Methods

Directed, Discussion, Interrupted



Subject Headings

Biology (General)  |   Genetics / Heredity  |   Medicine (General)  |   Psychology  |   Nutrition  |   Interdisciplinary Sciences  |  

Date Posted


Teaching Notes

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The following video(s) are recommended for use in association with this case study.

  • Is Anorexia in Your Genes?
    What causes a person to become anorexic? This brief video with peer-appeal describes the complexities and misunderstandings related to anorexia nervosa and explores a genetic link. Running time: 3:08 min. Produced by Discovery News/Seeker 2013.
  • The Epigenetics of Identical Twins
    This clever video provides background for those who wish to further examine an epigenetic model of anorexia and how the nature-nurture model is dynamic. Running time: 4:45 min, Produced by Learn.Genetics (The University of Utah), 2013.