The common stereotype of an individual with an eating disorder tends to be a thin, white, young woman or girl, but this isn’t an accurate representation.
While it’s true that eating disorders are more common among women, people of all genders, races, religions, ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds can develop eating disorders. Emerging research suggests that minorities may be at an even higher risk of disordered eating than their white peers. Addressing eating disorders in minority communities is essential.
Eating disorders in minority communities
Eating disorders, like anorexia nervosa, bulimia and binge eating disorder don’t discriminate by race — they can affect people of all ethnic groups. However, they tend to impact non-white individuals differently. For example, minority populations may present unique symptomatology and higher numbers of eating disorder risk factors (like abuse, trauma, poverty and racism).
A systematic review in the journal Psychiatria Danubina found that racial and ethnic minorities were less likely to seek and receive treatment than their white peers. Moreover, referral rates were lower for people of color. The study also states that some ethnic groups were more likely to express logistical concerns about attending treatment, like not knowing where to go to receive care.
Risk factors for eating disorders in minority communities
- Less likely to seek and receive treatment
There is a high correlation between mental health and eating disorders. The National Eating Disorders Collaboration states that between 56 and 95% of those diagnosed with an eating disorder are also impacted by a psychiatric diagnosis.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, mental health care for racial, ethnic, religious and gender minorities is lacking in the United States. Several barriers exist, like transportation issues, cultural stigma, a disbelief in mental health issues, language barriers and discrimination. Addressing eating disorders requires simultaneously addressing minority mental health.
Small measures can be taken to reverse the effects of this risk factor. For example, telehealth for eating disorders can reach individuals who live in remote or low-resource populations.
- Food deserts in minority communities
Access to food can be a significant barrier in preventing and treating eating disorders in minority groups. Low-resource communities in particular may be victim to food deserts, meaning an area that has limited supply of affordable and nutritious food. Eradicating food deserts in minority communities requires systemic change.
Barriers to eating disorder treatment can start at the very first step of care: diagnosis. The National Eating Disorder Association states that black and Hispanic women were more likely to have symptoms rated as “not problematic” by a clinician who rated the same symptoms as “problematic” for white women.
- Media and assimilation
All bodies are naturally diverse, but our culture does tend to value certain bodies more than others — thin, white bodies in particular.
Pressure to fit a certain “standard” of appearance can adversely affect members of racial, ethnic and religious minority groups. Western media is dominated by white faces and thin bodies. People who are young and old are susceptible to stress that comes with being unable to assimilate to the majority.
There has been a societal push for greater representation of ethnic minorities in media, but exposure to television, social media, advertisements and more can still have a negative impact on eating patterns and mental health.
Eating disorder treatment considerations for minorities
Working with minority communities to treat eating disorders has historically functioned in the same manner as treating the general population. Recent research demonstrates that personalized treatment encourages more favorable outcomes.
The Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology recommends the following 11 core recommendations when treating eating disorders in minorities.
- Use culturally informed interventions
- Address barriers to accessing care
- Consider patients in their cultural context
- Investigate the effects of cultural factors
- Assume a collaborate, curious therapeutic perspective
- Understand nuances that affect clinical manifestations
- Engage family and social supports
- Provide education
- Explore ethnic identity, acculturation and acculturative stress
- Become educated on research regarding minority communities
- Implement a culturally flexible diagnostic method
These measures have a twofold purpose: they can make practitioners more effective in their methods and they can increase patient comfort and retention in treatment, therefore improving outcomes for those who struggle with eating disorders.
The good news
According to the journal Eating Disorders, minority communities have a unique resource that can actually prevent the onset of eating disorders. Research shows that a positive relationship with ethnic identity can be a protective factor against disordered eating.
Engaging a person’s culture may grow to be an effective component of holistic treatment, and prevent relapse in eating disorder recovery.
Accessing treatment can be intimidating, but personalized and holistic care from a culturally sensitive lens can make all the difference in your eating disorder recovery and life-long fulfillment. Call Seeds of Hope now to schedule an appointment.