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December 17, 2004
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  Anorexia and Race    

Anorexia Genes (7.18.03) - New research shows that genetics likely plays a role in anorexia.

Dying To Be Thin (1.02.03) - Doctors are searching for a genetic cause for eating disorders.

  National Alliance for the Mentally Ill: Anorexia

Eating Disorders Resources

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There's a general perception that eating disorders like anorexia primarily affect white girls. "When you read, in the media for example, about eating disorders, invariably they are portrayed as problems of white women," says Ruth Striegel-Moore, a psychology professor at Wesleyan University.

As shown on PBS's NOVA, 8 million people in America, mostly young women, suffer from anorexia, or self-starvation. But does it equally affect all races? "There aren’t a lot of large, systematic studies that have looked at that question," says Striegel-Moore, who recently published a study looking at the race and anorexia in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

So Striegel-Moore and her team surveyed 2,046 young black and white women with an average age of 21, and found that black women were less likely to get certain eating disorders—especially anorexia. "We found no case of a black young woman with anorexia nervosa in this study," says Striegel-Moore. "We’re not looking at risk factors for anorexia nervosa in this study, but what may be going on is that black women are…under less pressure to be super thin. In fact, there’s quite a bit of research that shows that black women prefer to be moderately thin—they don’t want to be skinny-thin—whereas white women…you can never be thin enough, so to speak, as a body ideal. So as a culture, black culture may have protective factors, so that even if a black woman may have the genetic vulnerability to anorexia nervosa, it may not get expressed because she grows up in a context that may be protective."

image: Levi Strauss & Co.
There were four cases of bulimia among the black women, compared to 23 among the white women, and 15 cases of binge eating disorder among the black women, compared to 27 among the white women. "If we had studied an older group of black and white women, the differences might not have been as extreme," Striegel-Moore points out. "Typically, the age of onset is later for black women than white women. It’s an important caveat of the study when we look at the differences between bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder between the two ethnic groups."

The team also found that black girls are less likely to seek treatment when they do get an eating disorder. "For the white women, about 30 percent reported that they had, in the past, received treatment for their eating disorders," says Striegel-Moore. "And only one of the black women altogether had received treatment for the eating disorder."

The reason for this difference may come back to perception. "Because eating disorders are so identified as being problems of white women, both the women with the disorder and the service providers may not think of these as problems of black women," explains Striegel-Moore. "So the physician may not ask about it, and the woman herself may not think about it as an eating disorder or as a problem for which you go and seek help. The different treatment rates are very important because regardless of your ethnic background, if you have an eating disorder, it’s a very serious mental and physical health problem, and there are effective treatments available for these disorders."

Scientists are now doing similar studies with other ethnic groups to better understand how they are affected by eating disorders like anorexia. "It’s very clear that ethnic minority groups do develop eating disorders," says Striegel-Moore. "Perhaps not at the same rates as white women, we don’t know that fully, but they do exist. It’s very important that we understand what the problems are for those groups."

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