Eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia, are white, middle class disorders. That statement, which we once thought to be true, has been disproven many times over, this time in a recent study into eating disorders among Native Americans. The research, published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, provides a view of the extent to which Native American populations experience eating disorders. While looking at this group, the research also reminds us that eating disorders affect many segments of the U.S. population.
The study was conducted at Wesleyan University in Connecticut and led by Professor Ruth Striegel-Moore. Since the late 1970s, Striegel-Moore has been one of the pioneering researchers in the field of eating disorders. “When I came on the scene, bulimia nervosa had not yet been recognized as an eating disorder,” Striegel-Moore told the Weslayan Argus.
Striegel-Moore has been particularly interested in studying eating disorders in under recognized populations. Her team studied data taken from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, which included 236 Native American or Inuit women and 253 men. There is currently little other research into eating disorders among Native Americans, and there are many unknowns about the prevalence in people indigenous to the U.S.
“Little is known about eating disorder symptoms in Native American populations for several reasons,” Striegel-Moore said in the International Journal of Eating Disorders. “Even though the U.S. government recognizes over 500 Native American tribes, one of the biggest research challenges is to find an adequate sample size. Our aim was to examine prevalence of behavioral symptoms of eating disorders in a public access data base to get an initial estimate of the extent to which young Native American adults experience such problems.”
The research confirmed that Native American women were more likely than Native American men to report eating disorder symptoms. The team also found a parallel between Native American women and ethnically white women when considering the prevalence of binge eating, purging and “ever having been diagnosed with an eating disorder.” “This commonality between Native American and White women refutes the myth that eating disorders are problems that only affect White girls and women” said Striegel-Moore.
Previous research on eating disorders in other ethically diverse groups including African-American, Latino, and Asian men and women has shown that the reasons that individuals in these populations develop eating disorders are the same as for White populations. Stresses that can contribute to eating disorders include family problems, a history of abuse, relationship issues, economic and financial problems, and the use of symptoms as a coping skill for depression, anger and low self-esteem. Ethnically diverse men and women may be particularly at risk for low self-esteem due to experiences of discrimination. In addition to environmental factors, genetics, access to care, and cultural factors may play a role.
“This research provides us with a first glimpse into the extent to which young adult NA populations experience behavioral symptoms of eating disorders,” concluded Striegel-Moore. “In the eating disorder field this type of epidemiological study has lagged behind other research, but now we have a foundation to study the distribution of eating disorders and identify psychological risk factors in Native American populations.”
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