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How cultural messages play a role in eating disorders

Posted on 02-22-16 in Mindfulness

How cultural messages play a role in eating disorders

Mae Lynn Reyes-Rodríguez, a clinical psychologist at the University of North Carolina Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders, believes that even after 25 years, research on eating disorders remains largely focused upon Caucasian women. She highlights the urgency to focus on how cultural diversity and messages influence eating behaviors and ultimately eating disorders.

Eating disorders have the highest mortality of any mental health condition, and according to the National Eating Disorders Association, up to 20 million women are affected by them. Despite increasing acknowledgment that eating disorders affect people of all backgrounds, minority communities still lack equal access to treatment.

A mistaken belief

The misunderstanding that eating disorders affect only white women is widespread, even in the health care community. Often, professionals fail to understand the cultural influences in play. Research indicates that clinicians are less likely to diagnose eating disorders in women of color.

A growing urgency

Many Latinas do not seek vital treatment for eating disorders due to language and cultural barriers. Moreover, cultural norms may be putting Latina and Asian-American women at greater risk.

According to Reyes-Rodriguez, “The majority of immigrant women, and some U.S.-born Latinas, are given cultural messages that they have to eat all the food on their plate.”

Latino culture often uses food as a comfort for children, instilling values and perceptions on food that could be damaging in the long term.

“These cultural values could lead to losing the self-awareness of body cues to hunger and satiety, and potentially promoting distorted eating behaviors or binge eating disorder – which is one of the most prevalent eating disorders in the Latino population,” Reyes-Rodriguez says.

Taking initiative

Gloria Lucas struggled with compulsive overeating and bulimia since she was 17. However, eating disorders were taboo in her Mexican-American community, and her family struggled to understand.

“Sometimes, immigrant parents try to guilt their kids into eating, even once they are full, by saying things like, ‘When I was growing up, I didn’t have this food. You have to eat it.’ They’re small messages, but they are deep,” she says. “It’s something I have to unlearn — if I’m full, I don’t have to eat it all. That’s OK.”

Lucas initiated Nalgona Positivity Pride, a “body positive” site for communities of color, hosting semimonthly eating disorder support groups in Los Angeles for people from diverse backgrounds, raising awareness.

Similarly, there is very little information on the effects of eating disorders on the Asian-Americans and Pacific Islander communities.

Lynn Chen, 38, co-founded Thick Dumpling Skin, an organization that aims to provide a platform for Asian-Americans to discuss their relationships with their bodies.

Chen remembers receiving mixed messages from her Taiwanese parents, who encouraged excessive eating while expecting her to remain thin. These clashing expectations ultimately caused problems with binge eating. Like Lucas, she wants to raise awareness on eating disorders to minority communities. She hopes to enable young women to avoid the confusion and setbacks she struggled with growing up.

Sovereign Health is a leading behavioral health treatment provider, devoted to the provision of evidence-based treatment for substance abuse disorders and mental illnesses. We aim to see our patients not just succeed in treatment but thrive in their daily lives as well. Given the Eating Disorder Awareness Month, we attempt to raise awareness and reach those in need of help. Our Eating Disorder program in San Clemente aims to provide top-quality treatment for women, focusing on all cultural and social elements in play. If you or a loved one is currently battling an eating disorder, help is just a phone call away.

 About the author

Sana Ahmed is a staff writer for Sovereign Health Group. A journalist and social media savvy content developer with extensive research, print and on-air interview skills, Sana has previously worked as an editor for a business magazine and been an on-air news broadcaster. She writes to share the amazing developments from the mental health world and unsuccessfully attempts to diagnose her friends and family. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at