Understanding Eating Disorders in the Hispanic & Latinx Community
Our society continues to perpetuate the myth that eating disorders are an issue primarily affecting young, thin white women. While research on eating disorders in marginalized groups has improved, our society has a long way to go to truly understand the scope of eating disorders within underserved populations. For example, though rates of binge eating disorder and bulimia nervosa in the Hispanic community are often the same or greater than in non-Hispanic white communities, they often go undetected due to stereotypes about eating disorders (Alegria et al., 2007).
Racism is embedded in the world at large and trickles down to national and state levels, institutions, policies, procedures, and systems of care. Its presence also heavily predicts both mental and physical health outcomes. By educating ourselves on the lived experiences of Hispanic and Latinx Americans and learning how racism operates within the systems that provide services, we can build our collective cultural humility and ultimately improve access to care and health outcomes for this community.
Read on to learn the prevalence of eating disorders in the Hispanic and Latinx population, the factors that influence the development of these illnesses, and the barriers to treatment for this community.
Prevalence of Eating Disorders in the Hispanic & Latinx Community
The limited research that exists involving Hispanic and Latinx individuals in the U.S. provides the following statistics:
- Eating disorders in the Latinx population are at similar or higher prevalence when compared with non-Latinx whites (Alegria et al., 2007; Marques et al., 2011; Udo & Grilo, 2018).
- Binge eating disorder is the most common eating disorder among Latinx individuals in the U.S. (Perez et al., 2016).
- Hispanic adolescents are significantly more likely to suffer from bulimia nervosa than their non-Hispanic peers (Swanson et al., 2011).
Factors that Influence Eating Disorder Development in the Hispanic & Latinx Community
While there’s no single reason eating disorders develop, Hispanic and Latinx individuals face distinct risk factors and vulnerabilities due to their racial and ethnic identities. Those in marginalized communities often experience heightened levels of trauma and discrimination, including body shaming, increased sexism, abuse, and poverty.
Latina women may experience oppression in the form of sexual objectification and racial discrimination, both of which are correlated with greater rates of body shame, depressive symptoms, and eating disorder development (Velez et al., 2015). Additionally, acculturation into the U.S. and cultural pressures lead many Latina women into dieting as an attempt to fit the thin ideal beauty standard. This is a major risk factor for disordered eating and eating disorders, and can also create a tense dichotomy at home, where cooking and enjoyment of food among family provide a strong cultural connection (Chithambo, 2018).
Though considered a norm in Latinx communities, teasing about weight and body shape also contributes to lowered self-esteem and decreased body satisfaction (Eisenberg et al., 2019).
Barriers to Treatment in the Hispanic and Latinx Community
Systemic barriers can make culturally competent screening and treatment intensely difficult. We know from research that Latinx individuals are significantly less likely than white people to be asked by a doctor about eating disorder symptoms or receive a referral for further care (Becker et al., 2003). The stereotype of those at risk for an eating disorder and what an eating disorder “looks like” can affect marginalized individuals as well, deterring them from seeking help.
Eating disorders thrive in secrecy and shame. Talking about mental health and related eating disorder struggles can be seen as taboo within the Latinx community, deepening the stigma and hesitation surrounding seeking help.
Additional factors preventing individuals from accessing effective eating disorder treatment include:
- Fear of possible discrimination in the medical setting
- The risk of deportation for undocumented folks when seeking help from the U.S. healthcare system
- Inaccessible treatment facility locations
- Lack of bilingual eating disorder providers in treatment settings
- Prohibitive cost of care
- Lack of clinician awareness of cross-cultural differences in nutrition and food choices
The Future of Recognizing and Treating Eating Disorders in the Hispanic and Latinx Community
The disparities faced in treatment access and the lack of research-backed, culturally and linguistically competent care must be addressed to dismantle structures of racism and move closer to a system of equitable care within the eating disorder field.
Hispanic and Latinx individuals deserve to be diagnosed and cared for at the same rate as their non-marginalized peers. For providers working with Hispanic and Latinx clients, exploring cultural identity can help pinpoint and address instances of institutional and internalized racism within their practice. Listening to the unique needs and firsthand accounts of marginalized communities is the best way to honor and respect the complexity of their intersecting identities. This examination of current practices can ultimately shape a new environment that encourages greater eating disorder detection and treatment efficacy – and an eating disorder field that reflects a true understanding of Hispanic and Latinx cultural diversity.
To learn more about providing culturally competent care for Latinxs with eating disorders, see this blog.
If you are concerned about you, a loved one, or a patient, please reach out to The Emily Program at 1-888-364-5977 or take our online quiz.