Eating Disorders in Ethnic Communities

For the purposes of this post: “Ethnicity is tied to a person’s culture, and can be made up of the beliefs, customs, and traditions that belong to a group of people…”

Has there been a rise in eating disorders in ethnic communities?

Yes, say the statistics.

No, say the experts – up to recently eating disorders have been underdiagnosed, underreported and undertreated in these groups.

One thing we can agree on – eating disorders don’t discriminate, whatever your race or religion.

However, despite this many men and women from ethnic communities live on the edge of, or with, an eating disorder. A recent YouGov poll commissioned by Beat, the UK’s leading eating disorder charity revealed:

‘Nearly 4 in 10 (39%) of people believed eating disorders were more common amongst white people than other ethnicities”.

Additional studies show these illnesses are just as, or even more commonly found, among BAME groups than Caucasians. This highlights the need to understand:

  • The cultural causes leading to eating disorders.
  • The unique challenges they create in terms of diagnosis and treatment.

I take an interest in the challenges faced by diverse communities. My talk, Feasting and Fasting: Body Image and Eating Disorders in Ethnic Communities explains some of the issues and provides strategies and suggestions to help.

Feast and Famine

Food and eating are deeply woven into cultures where traditions and rituals are so fundamental. Whilst this is a positive in terms of support, it can lead to difficulties for a person whose relationship with food is complicated.

For example, many women in these communities find it difficult to escape food. It is involved in every aspect of life from baby naming, birthdays, coming-of-age ceremonies, mourning rituals and religious festivals.

Dietary rules restricting certain foods can be a means of masking an eating disorder – and make it easier to hide.

Fasting, which forms part of some religious observances, also assists eating disorder sufferers who restrict, or can trigger a setback following recovery.

For example, in Islam and Judaism fasting during Holy Days or Ramadan is obligatory – but not if you are ill or can be made ill, although this is not always acknowledged or acted on.

Rebelling against ‘tradition’

In very traditional households eating – or not eating – may be the only way to rebel  – there may not seem to be any other option. When food observance is so important you can be sure the person who doesn’t conform will get attention.

Traditional, loose fitting clothing can also help to hide the effects of an eating disorder, making it more difficult to diagnose an issue until the problem is severe.  

Avoiding marriage and children

One other place eating disorders can show themselves is in communities where marriages are ‘arranged.’

Increasingly in these marriages a requirement is for the prospective wife to be slim. Studies seem to indicate that men want their brides to be slimmer – the western ideal of slimness equalling beauty, health and fertility having been accepted. (The mothers are looked at carefully as well…)  

In some communities, one way for women to avoid an arranged marriage is to either starve themselves or overfeed in an effort to make themselves unattractive. Whether deliberately or subconsciously, this tactic too often develops into an eating disorder.

In cultures with a tradition of larger families several studies have shown that some married women will overeat deliberately to make themselves ‘unattractive’ – one way they can reassert control and/or inhibit reproduction.

The stigma of mental health

Another documented reason for the underreporting of eating disorders in ethnic communities is the stigma attached to mental illness. Diagnosis and treatment would draw attention; an acknowledged mental illness might not only affect the chances of a successful match but, it is feared, bring social disgrace to the rest of the family.

What about the men?

Don’t forget – men get eating disorders, too.

Pressures and situations discussed in this post are just as difficult, and challenging. Because eating disorders in males tend to be on the overeating scale, they can be more difficult to diagnose and treat. For example, a recent study found:

Muslim adolescents had the most characteristic pattern of eating psychopathology, including generally less healthy eating attitudes and behaviour…the Muslim boys’ eating attitudes were particularly poor relative to those of the other (Caucasian) boys.”

Prevention is better than a cure…

With eating disorders, the earlier the treatment the better the chances of recovery. However, isn’t prevention better than a cure?

Especially when we know that curing an eating disorder, once entrenched, is very, very difficult.

So, we must be aware – we must recognise what is happening to our friend, child or relative by understanding the potential danger.

Our challenge? To accept the prevalence of eating disorders in ethnic communities, and to apply solutions.

Finally, I’ll let the last word go to expert Andrew Radford, Beat’s Chief Executive: –

“Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses that affect people of all ages, genders and backgrounds. We have to challenge the stereotypes and raise awareness so that everyone who needs help can get it quickly.”

Concerned for yourself or a friend or family member? My resources page gives you details of organisations who can help.

Please, don’t wait.

P.S. For a full list of the sources in this post please get in touch.

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