by Ria Pal
For most Americans, the typical patient with an eating disorder is a thin, wealthy Caucasian female. In reality, there is a tremendous range of patients, and this stereotype causes families and medical providers alike to overlook symptoms and treatment for a potentially devastating disease with psychological and physiological consequences.
Information about the prevalence of eating disorders in ethnic minority groups, particularly Latinos, is virtually unknown — several studies on eating disorders have left out Latinos as a group entirely. Yet, several studies have reported higher rates of eating disorder symptoms and body dissatisfaction among Latino groups than among non-Hispanic whites or among other ethnic minority females. For example, studies have reported a higher and more severe prevalence of binge eating among Latino females compared to White, African American, and Asian American women. Population-based surveys of adolescents found that rates of dieting and using laxatives were highest among Latinas. Studies of body image found that unlike some other ethnic groups, who idealize very thin bodies, Latinos often idealize bodies that are simultaneously thin and curvy.
The most common eating disorders are anorexia (avoiding eating altogether) and bulimia (overeating and then “purging” to get rid of the food through forced vomiting or laxative use). Among Latinos, however, the most common diagnosis is called OSFED, “Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder.” OSFED is equally serious, but does not fit into a definition as easily. Behaviors that would be categorized as OSFED include binge-eating, excessive eating at night, and purging without overeating.
Regardless of age, gender, weight, or immigration status, people who think they may have unhealthy eating behaviors deserve help. Beyond the initial challenges of recognizing the symptoms and breaking the stigma, affording eating disorder treatment is hard. But there are alternatives to pocket-draining residential treatment programs that average at $30,000 a month. Often just an inquiry and application away, some treatment facilities do offer scholarships and grants. Teaching hospitals or mental health facilities, which often offer free services, might also be an option. Then there are support groups, online and offline, which exist to both help guide people in their search for assistance and act as an inexpensive and effective way to talk and help one another deal with the variety of concerns and challenges that come with disordered eating.
It can be helpful to think of eating disorders as a chronic disease, one that may become better but is at a risk for relapse. It is important for people to take precautions against relapsing, especially when they are doing better. People with eating disorders can benefit from a wide range of options for help, which include support groups (which can be found at http://www.anad.org/get-help/find-support-groups-treatment/), therapists, dieticians, treatment centers, dentists, physicians, psychiatrists, and art or yoga therapists.
Another harmful aspect of the stereotype that eating disorders affect only white people is that few resources have been developed for Spanish speaking patients. It can be difficult and intimidating to seek out resources in Spanish, especially in rural areas. https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/neda-espanol is a web site with basic information and a confidential, toll free hotline (1-800-931-2237). Not all of the volunteers on the hotline are Spanish speaking, but if someone who only speaks Spanish calls, they can still be assisted. If you or someone you know may have an eating disorder, take the first step to seek help.
Ria Pal is a medical student and aspiring pediatrician at the University of Rochester. She hopes to work in community health as an advocate for Spanish speaking patients. She is on the board of the school’s chapter of the Latino Medical Student Association (LMSA) who are committed to contribute educational articles relevant to the Latino community.
CONGRATULATION Ria Pal on your graduation from the Rochester University. CNY Latino wishes you success in your medical career and we THANK YOU for your contribution to our bilingual publication…