NEWS

We Need to Talk About Eating Disorders in the Black Community

drawing of Black girl sitting on a spoon

Verywell / Laura Porter

Key Takeaways

  • Poverty and food insufficiency play a part in eating disorders in the black community.
  • A lack of medical support contributes to eating disorders being a taboo topic among black Americans.
  • Recognizing your relationship with food, and the reasons that fuel your eating habits, can help uncover causes behind eating disorders.

Over 28 million Americans will struggle with disordered eating at some point in their life. Despite the large numbers of people who deal with eating disorders, the issue is still taboo among many in the Black community. Experts say the value placed on food has a lot to do with it.

“[Food] is a love language. It’s something that communicates, you are important to me, you matter to me. The thought that any type of relationship with eating could be disordered, I think, is a little culturally shocking, because we have such a loving relationship [with food],” explains Rachel W. Goode, PhD, MPH, LCSW, Assistant Professor, School of Social Work, Department of Psychiatry, School of Medicine, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Eating disorders can lead to physical, mental, and emotional challenges. Knowing all the problems that the disorders can cause, it’s important to acknowledge these disorders, understand the perception of eating disorders in the black community, and increase awareness among people of color.

The Perception of Eating Disorders in the Black Community

Eating disorders are defined as behavioral conditions that not only change a person’s eating patterns, but also impact them emotionally and mentally. While there are a number of eating disorders recognized by medical and mental health professionals, the three main types of eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, binge eating disorder, and bulimia nervosa.

Rachel W. Goode, PhD, MPH, LCSW

Bulimia nervosa and then binge eating disorders…are more common among Black Americans... Both of those are when individuals feel like they engage in eating episodes, and they lose control..

— Rachel W. Goode, PhD, MPH, LCSW

“[Anorexia nervosa] is probably the eating disorder that is the least prevalent among Black Americans. Bulimia nervosa and then binge eating disorders…are more common, particularly binge eating disorder. Both of those are when individuals feel like they engage in eating episodes, and they lose control,” states Dr. Goode.

Understanding the way eating disorders are perceived in the Black community requires looking at the issue holistically.

“Historically, ED (eating disorder) has been seen as a white woman's disorder,” explains Kyra Ross, MSEd, MHC-LP, a psychotherapist. “In modern history, within Black culture, the beauty standard has been slightly different from that of dominant culture. Black women have been revered (or fetishized) for their larger hip, buttocks, and slightly larger overall frame,” Ross states. Larger body frames may then be less likely to be linked to an eating disorder.

Another historical viewpoint is the way people of color have had to struggle to survive on little to feed themselves and their families.

“There was a long period where we really did not have access to what we needed. And so, we made it work with what we had [to eat],” states Dr. Goode. “When we started noticing challenges with our weight, when our country started putting a lot of focus on obesity, eating disorders started coming up, too.”

Poverty plays heavily into having access to healthy foods. Basically, when individuals can’t afford the foods they want or need, it opens them up to binging when they get it. A study authored by Dr. Goode showed that individuals with continuing food insufficiency were more likely to have experienced binge-eating episodes in the last 12 months. Additional research shows that binge eating disorder is associated with obesity,which is a disease that impacts nearly 48% of African American adults.

As more people of color take note of eating disorders and their inherent dangers, experts say their treatment by the medical community hinders progress.

“Because of historic context of how the medical and psychological community has mistreated Black Americans there has, over time, developed medical mistrust within the community," explains Ross. "In addition to the experienced medical mistrust, there is currently an enormous discrepancy in access to quality healthcare between white Americans and Black Americans,” she adds.

A lack of education, historical relationships with food, and inequities in treatment all serve as challenges to treating eating disorders in the Black community. Despite those barriers, knowing what to look for and what resources are available can give you a start in the right direction.

Signs of an Eating Disorder and Resources to Help

One of the first steps in educating about eating disorders is to help people understand just how serious they are, and their impact.

“If an eating disorder progresses and is left untreated one might experience abnormal heart rhythms, an enlarged heart, congestive heart failure, sudden cardiac death, and low blood pressure,” Ross states. “Often times people living with eating disorders have comorbid disorders such as depression, anxiety, or substance abuse.”

Kyra Ross, MSEd, MHC-LP

Because of historic context of how the medical and psychological community has mistreated Black Americans there has, over time, developed medical mistrust within the community.

— Kyra Ross, MSEd, MHC-LP

Whether you’re unsure if your eating habits constitute an eating disorder, or someone you care about has one, being aware of the symptoms is a good start.

Obsessions with diets and counting calories, rapid weight decline or weight gain, missing meals and denying hunger, extensive exercising to lose weight, vomiting after meals, and increased mood swings are just some of the potential signs of an eating disorder.

While all of those symptoms are concerning, hope lies in making eating disorders a wider-known and better-understood condition among Black Americans.

Probing not only the eating patterns, but the reasons behind those patterns, can help set others up for success. If you find you are struggling with an eating disorder, a few resources that can help you include Eating Disorder Recovery Specialists, National Eating Disorders Association, and Eating Recovery Center. Therapists, counselors, and support groups can also help on your journey to healing.

Ultimately, understanding the purpose for food, and creating a relationship based on that purpose, will benefit all races.

“Food is used to satisfy physical hunger, not emotional. And it’s hard to separate those two.  Help them really assess their own relationship with food and why they’re using it and begin to heal some of that,” Dr. Goode concludes.

What This Means For You

Eating disorders are about more than just the amount of food you eat. The disorders, and your relationship with food, can stem from behaviors you’ve seen in your family and not having enough to eat in the past.

It’s important that members of the Black community understand the severity of eating disorders, the symptoms of the condition, and that there are resources available to help you establish a healthy relationship with food.

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5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  5. American Psychological Association. Ethnicity and health in America series: Obesity in the African-American community.