The question of “who can get an eating disorder” might seem simple to answer, but we live a time when people are regularly turned away from treatment or support for disordered eating because they are “too old”, “not thin enough”, or male.
Even in the medical community, there are widespread misunderstandings about the most deadly mental illness in the world which can prevent people from accessing or affording rehabilitation.
The picture most people imagine when they think of eating disorders is a young, likely white, woman – typically under 25. It is understandable, as the majority of those who seek and receive treatment for anorexia and bulimia – the two most well-known eating disorders – match this description. But, it is a vast oversimplification of the current situation.
The biggest problem facing our understanding of eating disorders and how they impact different demographics is a fundamental failure in the identification of these disorders.
Most estimates suggest approximately 20 million women and 10 million men of all races and ages will experience an eating disorder in their lives. These numbers are terribly unreliable, however, because a large number of people who live with eating disorders are never diagnosed. In addition to this, there are a number of hurdles between being diagnosed and actually receiving treatment.
It is believed that as many as 9 in 10 people with an eating disorder never receive professional treatment or rehabilitation.
Because of this massive gap between those diagnosed with eating disorders and those who are never formally diagnosed, it is nearly impossible to properly estimate just how widespread the disorders are in the population.
Secondly, the estimates we have based on which demographics are most effected by eating disorders are influenced by stigmas and taboos that uniquely affect different groups. While younger white women are most likely to seek and receive a diagnose and treatment for eating disorders, minority groups and men are drastically less likely to use or have access to support systems for eating disorders – largely because they are not the “typical” person with an eating disorder.
With this in mind, lets discuss what we do know. Eating disorders exist in people of all genders, ages, and races.
Men and Eating Disorders
Conservative estimates suggest as much as 25% of all people with eating disorders are believed to be male, though the real number is likely much higher.
Men are less likely than almost any other demographic to seek help for eating disorders because they are often perceived of as “women’s issues”. Men often say they fear being emasculated by admitting their struggles with eating disorders and being shamed by a society that believes “men don’t get eating disorders.”
Another issue preventing men from being properly educated or treated about eating disorders is that many awareness campaigns focus on how eating disorders affect women. This is a problem because disordered eating can frequently look very different in males, who are striving for a different body “ideal”. To counter this, education efforts should strive to highlight how eating disorders affect both men and women and what they may look like in both genders.
Eating Disorders in Minorities
Many have suggested that minority groups such as African-Americans are less susceptible to eating disorders because they may have different body ideals shaped by their unique culture and history which prize a more “full” body. These people often cite the low rates of treatment for eating disorders among these communities.
These beliefs have not been validated by research. Instead, studies have shown that eating disorders are notably prevalent in minority groups, who often say they feel pulled to live up to white body ideals while still showcasing features prized within their community. This push and pull can lead to unhealthy eating and style habits – such as dangerous “waist training” – in order to achieve the “thin but full bodied” look so commonly celebrated in pop culture.
While recent research has found ethnic minorities are reporting eating disorders in higher numbers, minority groups are still significantly less likely to seek treatment compared to other groups. Even worse, referrers were notably less likely to send members of minority groups to eating disorder specialists for treatment, when they have been diagnosed.
Age and Eating Disorders
Perhaps the most widespread misunderstanding of eating disorders is that they are a “young person’s illness.” There seems to be some belief that the issues and outside stressors that contribute to the development of eating disorders naturally fades as a person ages, despite the obvious increase in stress and anxiety that comes with managing a household income, raising children, and leading a full professional life.
Women in midlife often have to face the body changes that come with childbirth and motherhood, but the desires to maintain a specific body shape rarely fade. This, accompanied by the increasing trends pushing older women to “keep fit” as a way to maintain a more youthful appearance, can create a perfect storm for the development of eating disorders later in life.
Men are also believed to be at significant risk for eating disorders later in life, but there is concerningly little information available about their eating disorder risks. They remain almost entirely overlooked by the research community.
In addition to the significant number of people who develop eating disorders later in life, the challenges of adulthood and midlife can also push those who have achieved recovery to relapse into old dangerous habits.
So, Who Can Get an Eating Disorder?
Eating disorders aren’t a women’s issue. They are not a “white issue.” Eating disorders affect members of every demographic in America, often in unique ways.
While recent increases in treatment and recovery rates for young women with eating disorders are encouraging, it is imperative that the medical community improve access to support and treatment systems for eating disorders to all demographics. Groups working to spread awareness of eating disorders should also highlight the effect these disorders have on men, older individuals, and minority groups.
If you think you or someone you know may be living with an eating disorder, call us at (888) 298-4673. We can answer any questions you have and see if treatment is right for you.