The truth about who is at risk for eating disorders


This week marks National Eating Disorders Awareness Week and this year’s theme is “Let’s Get Real”. Brookhaven is honoring this event by discussing how the widespread myths and misunderstanding about eating disorders harm vulnerable communities and prevent people living with a life-threatening disorder from ever seeking treatment.

Most people think of eating disorders as a “young white girl problem.” Thanks to the media and misperceptions about how eating disorders develop, people have come to believe that only these young Caucasian females are vulnerable to anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder. Obviously, the truth isn’t so simple.

First off, eating disorders are a real mental illness, not a “problem” that can be caused by a single factor like “wanting to shed some pounds” or wanting attention. As such, eating disorders can affect anyone and can be mentally and physically disabling. If untreated, eating disorders can even be fatal.

Today, I wanted to highlight some groups vulnerable to eating disorders that often go overlooked:


According to most estimates, approximately one-third of all Americans with eating disorders are male. This alone represents roughly 10 million American men, but this is widely considered a low count. Most experts believe many men may live with eating disorders without recognizing it, as anorexia or other eating disorders may present differently in males.

While women with eating disorders may focus on dieting and severely restricting food, males with eating disorders frequently over-exercise and over-use protein drinks or exercise supplements in place of proper nutrition.

People across the weight spectrum

Everyone tends to imagine people with eating disorders as having a skeletally thin or emaciated body. However, research shows this is only true for a relatively small percentage of people with eating disorders. Recent studies have found that people at higher weights may be at an increased risk for eating disorders but are less likely to be diagnosed or receive treatment. This underdiagnosis is believed to be caused by lack of recognition from medical professionals and stigma surrounding body shape and eating disorders.

Older individuals

While many eating disorders develop somewhat early in life, they may also be triggered later in life. Body changes from age and changing metabolism, transitions in life, and other stresses unique to adulthood can spark body image issues or eating disorders that were previously not apparent. Additionally, those eating disorders that developed early in life may persist through adulthood or reappear as relapses due to these life stresses.

LGBT individuals

Source: Flickr/De Freezer

Researchers have only recently begun to explore how LGBTQ individuals may be uniquely affected by eating disorders, but the findings so far have been alarming. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, “gay, lesbian and bisexual teens may be at higher risk of binge-eating and purging than heterosexual peers” from as early as 12-years-old.  Gay men, in particular, were shockingly at risk being seven times more likely to report bingeing and 12 times more likely to report purging compared to straight men.

Transgender individuals were also distinctly vulnerable to eating disorders. A study of college students estimated that transgender students were almost 5 times more likely to live with an eating disorder compared to cisgender heterosexual women.

Low-Income African-American and Hispanic individuals

Race has been shown to be relatively unimportant when it comes to eating disorders. Given the same environment and circumstances, an African-American individual is similarly likely to develop an eating disorder compared to a Caucasian person. However, when you factor in socioeconomic issues, things change.

One study indicated that approximately 15 percent of low-income Hispanic and African-American adolescents report living with an eating disorder, compared to just 3 percent of the general population. Other research found that 17 percent of Hispanic families which faced severe food insecurities (where there was not always enough food to feed the children) reported clinically diagnosable eating disorder symptoms.

Not a “young white girl problem”

As you can see, eating disorders often don’t look like they do in the media. People of all body shapes, genders, races, and ages can live with an eating disorder. Unfortunately, the common misrepresentation of eating disorders keeps those that don’t fit the stereotype from recognizing the disorder or receiving treatment. It is important we work to break down these stereotypes and show that anyone can be vulnerable, and recovery is possible for everyone with an eating disorder.

If you or someone you love are living with an eating disorder, give Brookhaven a call at (888) 298-4673. We can answer any questions you have and help find the best treatment plan for you.

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