Eating disorders underdiagnosed, untreated in men, minorities

March 13, 2018 by Laurel Thomas, University of Michigan

When we think about eating disorders, what comes to mind most often are underweight white females. But this stereotype is causing a great number of males and people of color to miss out on getting proper health care, say researchers at the University of Michigan.

In a survey of college-age students, Kendrin Sonneville and Sarah Lipson of the U-M School of Public Health found great disparities in who was getting both diagnosis and treatment for eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia, binge eating disorder and overconsumption.

"While many people assume that eating disorders affect 'skinny, white, affluent girls,' we found that among college students with eating disorders, just 2 percent were underweight, most were not affluent, and a sizeable portion were male and nonwhite," said Sonneville, assistant professor of nutritional sciences.

"We also found that stereotypes about who develops eating disorders could contribute to disparities in diagnosis and treatment, with males, those of higher weight, people of color, and the nonaffluent most likely to be slipping through the cracks."

In their analysis of more than 1,700 young people from 12 colleges and universities across the country that participated in the Healthy Bodies Study, the researchers found that females were almost five times more likely to get diagnosed than males; white students were nearly two times more likely to get diagnosed than students of color; and underweight students were more than six times more likely to get diagnosed than those students with a health body weight. Students with overweight/obesity were about half as likely to get diagnosed.

When it came to treatment, females were almost 1.5 times more likely to get help compared with males, and affluent students were nearly two times more likely to get treatment compared to nonaffluent. Underweight students were almost six times more likely to get treatment compared to students with a healthy .

Estimates are that nearly 5 percent of the population in the United States has an eating disorder at some point in their lives, yet only one third of individuals receive treatment.

Among the in the current study with an eating disorder, nearly 31 percent perceived a need for treatment, 10.5 percent had received a diagnosis and nearly 14 percent had received treatment in the past year.

"Most people with an eating disorder never get diagnosed and never get treatment, even though successful treatments that can reduce suffering, health consequences and cost are available," Sonneville said. "Most media coverage about eating disorders has focused on cases of anorexia among thin, white female celebrities. Many individuals with eating disorders do not recognize themselves in these stereotyped portrayals of eating disorders in the media and may not recognize the need for treatment."

In fact, the team found that anorexia was much more likely to get diagnosed (73 percent) compared to individuals with (7 percent). This disparity could perpetuate stereotypes because anorexia will be the most common diagnosis encountered, even though it is the least common eating disorder.

Sonneville said universal screening and prevention, led by clinicians, could help reduce these disparities.

"In general, more attention needs to be paid to the prevention of eating disorders at the population level," Sonneville said. "Smaller-scale efforts that focus only on those at highest risk (for example, women) may be effective. They may also disadvantaged people who already feel excluded from the prevailing discourse about eating and marginalized within settings."

Explore further: Eating disorders linked to increased risk of theft and other criminal behavior

More information: K. R. Sonneville et al. Disparities in eating disorder diagnosis and treatment according to weight status, race/ethnicity, socioeconomic background, and sex among college students, International Journal of Eating Disorders (2018). DOI: 10.1002/eat.22846

Related Stories

Eating disorders linked to increased risk of theft and other criminal behavior

August 9, 2017
In an analysis of nearly 960,000 females, individuals with eating disorders were more likely to be convicted of theft and other crimes.

Poor outcomes common with childhood anorexia nervosa

March 5, 2018
(HealthDay)—Anorexia nervosa (AN) that develops before age 14 often leads to unfavorable outcomes, according to a study published online Feb. 16 in the International Journal of Eating Disorders.

School affects girls' chances of being diagnosed with an eating disorder

April 21, 2016
The school a girl attends can affect her chance of being diagnosed with an eating disorder. That's the conclusion of research carried out by a joint UK-Swedish team. The results were published today in the International Journal ...

The incidence of eating disorders is increasing in the UK

May 20, 2013
More people are being diagnosed with eating disorders every year and the most common type is not either of the two most well known—bulimia or anorexia—but eating disorders not otherwise specified (eating disorders that ...

Keep an eye out for eating disorders in loved ones

March 3, 2017
(HealthDay)—Millions of Americans have eating disorders, but it can be difficult for family and friends to detect these problems in loved ones, a doctor warns.

Binge eating disorder can be treated

November 10, 2015
When most people hear the term "eating disorder," they usually think of anorexia or bulimia nervosa. While anorexia and bulimia are more commonly recognized, doctors are concerned about a different kind of eating disorder ...

Recommended for you

Researchers discover abundant source for neuronal cells

December 13, 2018
USC researchers seeking a way to study genetic activity associated with psychiatric disorders have discovered an abundant source of human cells—the nose.

New genetic clues to early-onset form of dementia

December 13, 2018
Unlike the more common Alzheimer's disease, frontotemporal dementia tends to afflict young people. It accounts for an estimated 20 percent of all cases of early-onset dementia. Patients with the illness typically begin to ...

Video game players frequently exposed to graphic content may see world differently

December 13, 2018
People who frequently play violent video games are more immune to disturbing images than non-players, a UNSW-led study into the phenomenon of emotion-induced blindness has shown.

How teens deal with stress may affect their blood pressure, immune system

December 13, 2018
Most teens get stressed out by their families from time to time, but whether they bottle those emotions up or put a positive spin on things may affect certain processes in the body, including blood pressure and how immune ...

How bullying affects the brain

December 12, 2018
New research from King's College London identifies a possible mechanism that shows how bullying may influence the structure of the adolescent brain, suggesting the effects of constantly being bullied are more than just psychological.

Length of eye blinks might act as conversational cue

December 12, 2018
Blinking may feel like an unconscious activity, but new research by Paul Hömke and colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, suggests that humans unknowingly perceive eye blinks as nonverbal cues when ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.