Anorexia genetics and personality: How you're descended from heroes!

Updated: Nov 28, 2021

Hi, I'm Michelle Cen. I recovered from 5 years of anorexia and bulimia thanks to learning about the work of Dr. Shan Guisinger.

Dr. Guisinger is a clinical psychologist and evolutionary biologist. She's treated eating disorders for over 30 years using her Adapted to Flee Famine theory. I'll explain her theory today, focusing on genetics and personality. Much of this information is paraphrased from her work.

Let's talk more about human genetics.

Over a century of genetic research shows that DNA determines personality. Anorexics share core personality traits which helped them survive during famine, but hinder them in today's modern environment.

If you're a perfectionist person who's anorexic, then join the crowd. Most anorexics have high standards and conscientiousness. And that takes one far - conscientiousness and self-control are two traits that strongly predict academic and career success.

So if you're anorexic, you have HUGE character strengths. The thing is, anorexia is taking advantage of your relentless drive.

You're basically the rat running in the wheel. You need to get off it! Off with it.

Anorexics needed high self-control to ignore their hunger cues during famine. Now, you can use your strengths to defeat your illness.

Let's see, who else was conscientious and agreeable? That's right, Joan of Arc. I've talked about her before, she helped end the Hundred Year's War between England and France like it was no big deal. She'd give up her own bed to pilgrims passing through her village. And she was anorexic. She never had a period, would eat just "a little bread dipped in wine" on occasion, and traveled huge distances while fighting for her country. Many saints in early Catholic churches were anorexic too. They fasted regularly and developed all the anorexia symptoms.

So now we understand your ancestors were superheroes who literally founded your population and were super successful, self-controlled nice people. They were the ones who were brave and altruistic enough to volunteer to look for better lands when famine struck their area.

The thing is, when you have anorexia and you're starving, your natural conscientiousness and self-control can grow to dangerous levels. Ansel Keys' landmark starvation studies in the 1940's showed that people who are psychologically healthy, when starved, become pathologically anxious, depressed, and OCD-like. When those people gained weight again, they lose all these mental issues.

Starvation makes you feel sad and irritable. I definitely felt that way when in the depths of starvation. The world looked very bleak. I'd taken time off college to volunteer at community-based farms in Hawaii. The outdoors is where I feel best. But when I was starving, a sight which would have typically filled me with joy, like a plant with the potential to grow and bear fruit, instead made me feel hollow. I used to be in awe of the miracle that's life, but my own reproductive system had long shut off.

The sunset looked gray and sad, which confused me, because I knew the world was alive and vibrant and beautiful.

I knew what I needed to bring color back into my life: I needed to eat. I needed energy.

If you're struggling with an eating disorder, you can break the cycle of sadness and get off the rat wheel. Literally get out of the rat race. Tell yourself this:

"My body is trying to migrate. My ancestors were heroes - their ability to move and ignore hunger allowed them to survive. But right now, I don't live in a famine. I have food. I need to eat."

You don't live in a time that was thousands of years ago, but now your body's tricked into thinking it's in the past. It's time to eat and bring it to the present. Weight gain is the only way to recover from anorexia.

When I had anorexia, all I could think about was food. I forgot what it was like to have a clear head that didn't obsess and dread over food 24/7.

Nobody should live like this, always dreaming about something they can't have. You can have food. You can eat. And the more you eat, the more you'll heal. You'll start to smile and laugh more because you'll feel better.

A lot of times we anorexics, we bulimics, we people with eating disorders are people who have trouble relaxing. But we're not in a famine. Let's take our amazing character traits and shine. We literally shine when we eat more fat and regain wait, because it makes your skin and hair will glow. We can only shine if we eat.

I know you can do it. With every bite you take you're getting stronger. I believe in you.

If you want to find out more about Dr. Guisinger's work, visit her website at Also, she's releasing a book on Adapted to Famine to be published by the American Psychological Association Press in 2022. It's an eating disorder treatment manual that I know will improve the way we treat patients.

For more information on healthy anorexia recovery from me, go to