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Understanding Eating Disorders in Minority Groups

Each July, we celebrate National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month, a time focused on highlighting the unique mental health struggles among minority populations. Even today, a stereotype exists that anorexia only affects young, female Caucasians who are affluent and well-educated. However, research increasingly demonstrates that disordered eating behaviors impact people of various ethnic backgrounds around the world. In today’s blog post, I want to take a closer look at how eating disorders impact minority groups.

To start, let’s consider some statistics about eating disorders in minority groups.

  • Black teenagers are 50 percent more likely than their white peers to exhibit bulimic behaviors.

  • Nearly 50 percent of Native American adolescents reported a desire to lose weight.

  • Researchers found that there is a higher prevalence of binge eating disorder in all minority groups.

  • Additionally, Hispanic adolescents were more likely to suffer from bulimia nervosa than their non-Hispanic peers.

When a minority struggles with an eating disorder, it’s often not because of a desire to be thin.

For example, in many minority cultures, love is demonstrated with food. Latinx women are raised to stay in the home and take care of their families, with cooking being a primary responsibility in their daily lives. As a result, they learn to focus on the needs of others, putting their own needs last. This expectation can create a sense of isolation, which creates a barrier when it comes to seeking eating disorder treatment.

Despite their hesitancy to ask for help, the Latinx population have eating disorders and body image struggles at comparable rates or even greater than non-Latinx whites. Furthermore, research shows that Latinx women struggle with confusing expectations when it comes to their bodies. In their own culture, larger bodies are celebrated, directly conflicting with a Caucasian culture that promotes a thinner body.

Similarly, for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, family is at the heart of their lives. They see negative emotions as a sign of weakness. This perspective creates a stigma around disordered eating behaviors, and individuals often ignore or hide their issues due to fear and shame. Additionally, Asian American families place a high importance on achievement, which often correlates with perfectionism, an early predictor of anorexia.

Early intervention is critical to recovery, which makes it all the more important for treatment providers to be aware of stereotypes and stigmas within each culture.

Just as the minority population’s experience with eating disorders is unique, so are the challenges they face when seeking mental health treatment. It’s important for medical professionals to consider the underlying reason for the eating disorder. For instance, one study found that the primary reason for binge eating typically varied among groups: Caucasians were most often driven to binge because of dietary restraint; Latinx binged due to anxiety; and African Americans identified peer insecurity as a primary reason for binge eating. Thus, treatment should be individualized whenever possible, particularly for minority patients.

If you or a loved one is struggling with mental health issues, reach out to Dr. Kelli Malkasian, PsyD, CEDS at Coral Reef Counseling, and schedule a free consultation or telehealth appointment today.


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