When the term eating disorder is mentioned, there is usually a specific mental image that comes to mind. Traditionally, the stereotypical person with this type of mental health issue is a young, wealthier Caucasian female. Mass media and pop culture images usually reinforce the portrayal of hyper-thin, white women who are suffering from the effects of conditions like anorexia nervosa. However, this stereotype that eating disorders only inflect younger, white women is not correct.
Eating disorders are usually placed into four overall categories: anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder and Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder (OSFED). Other mental health issues are also commonly assisted with these eating disorders such as general anxiety, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), depression, bipolar disorder and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD).
The American Psychiatric Association defines an eating disorder as an illness where people experience severe disturbances in their eating behaviors. They also have problems related to the regulation of thoughts and emotions, usually becoming obsessed with food consumption and their body weight. The prevalence of reported eating disorders, with the exception of anorexia nervosa, is similar among Non-Hispanic Whites, Hispanics, African-Americans, and Asian Americans in the United States.
Decades ago, American societal portrayals of eating disorders were almost always shown as a white-woman problem. Shockingly, this misconception was also maintained by physicians and other healthcare professionals.
For example, behavioral health research from 2006 challenged the notion that African-American women were less likely to develop eating disorders. In this study, healthcare providers read 1 of 3 passages describing disturbed eating patterns of a fictional patient named Mary. The only differences between the passages were that the patient’s race, which was randomly changed for each provider. This meant that every fictional patient’s symptoms were identical, with only the person’s race randomly rotating between African-American, Caucasian, or Hispanic.
Healthcare professionals were then asked to diagnosis the patient’s level of depression, anxiety as well as whether an eating disorder might exist. In cases of a white racial profile, the eating behavior was considered problematic 44% of the time. For Hispanic profiles, the behavior was considered problematic in 41% of the cases. Surprisingly, when the patient was identified as African American, the eating behavior was identified as problematic in only 17% of the cases. The study’s final results suggested that healthcare clinicians appear to hold race-based stereotypes about eating disorders that could limit their detection of symptoms in African-American girls.
The results of the 2006 study reinforced earlier research from 2002 which found that the race of adolescent girls had a significant impact on the detection of disturbed eating patterns. In this study, undergraduate college students recognized the existence of an eating disorder more often when they read about a Caucasian female, rather than when they read about a minority female (Hispanic or African American) with the same behavior.
National statistics indicate that eating disorders predominantly occur in white females, but many eating disorder professionals increasingly believe that the data is skewed. Women of color have likely been alienated from personal support networks. In addition, healthcare professionals use to believe that African-American and Hispanic women were somehow more immune to eating disorders.
Until recently, people with an African American racial identify were underrepresented in treatment centers and research studies about eating disorders. Gathering quality data was more of a challenge due to societal misperceptions and prejudice. Now it is clear that perceptions of body image and disordered eating patterns are not just problems for young, white women.
Here is some additional information on eating disorders and minorities:
- Individuals of Hispanic descent were more likely to suffer from bulimia nervosa versus their non-Hispanic peers.
- Studies and news reports have found elevated rates of anorexia and other eating disorders among teenage girls in Orthodox Jewish communities.
- People of color with self-acknowledged eating and weight concerns were less likely than white participants to have been asked by healthcare providers about eating disorder symptoms, despite similar rates of eating disorder symptoms across ethnic groups.
- For American Indian/Native American, a significantly higher percentage of women reported disordered eating behaviors.
It is clear that eating disorders do not only occur in certain racial or socioeconomic groups. Race, ethnicity and/or socioeconomic status does not make individuals immune to these health conditions. In the past, eating disorders were primarily associated with heterosexual, young, white females. In fact, these mental health issues affect people from all demographics and ethnicities at similar rates. However, minority groups (particularly African Americans) are significantly less likely to receive help for eating disorder problems.
Regardless of one’s racial or ethnic identity, treating and recovering from an eating disorder takes time as well as professional help. An experienced mental health professional can help a person understand the origins of this behavior, whether it is an eating disorder as well as acquire coping skills.
For additional information or questions about this topic, please contact the staff at Toledo Center (RCC). Their Eating Disorders Programs provide a full range of treatment options for both adolescents and adults. The Toledo Center’s main phone number is 1.877.212.5457.
The EAT-26 is the most widely cited standardized self-report screening measure that may be able to help you determine if you have an eating disorder that needs professional attention. Take the EAT-26 now and get immediate and anonymous feedback.
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Eating Disorders, Minorities
Contributor: ABCS RCM