Study Shows Eating Disorders Are Colorblind
Jan. 25, 2000 (New York) -- Contrary to popular belief, black American women
are just as likely or even more likely to have serious eating problems than
white women, according to a report in the January issue of the journal
Archives of Family Medicine.
"There was a long-standing belief that women of color don't have these
[eating] problems. What this study shows is that's essentially a myth; in fact,
they do exhibit these problems, particularly binge eating and, to a lesser
extent, abuse of laxatives for weight control purposes," lead author Ruth
Striegel-Moore, PhD, of Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., tells
A sample composed of over 1,600 black women and over 5,700 white women (aged
18-40) was questioned by telephone by the researchers. Participants lived in
the greater Boston area or in Connecticut. The racially mixed sample was
selected to include women of diverse socioeconomic backgrounds and to include
people living in urban, suburban, and rural areas.
Using standardized questions, the women were asked about binge eating
(overeating with a sense of loss of control). They were also asked if they ever
used such extreme weight control measures as vomiting, abuse of laxatives or
diuretics, or fasting. In addition to information about age, education, race,
height and weight, participants were also asked questions about any mental
The investigators found that black women were as likely as white women to
engage in binge eating or self-induced vomiting during the three months prior
to the survey. Binge eating was reported in 8% of black women and 9% of white
women. About 1% of each group said they sometimes self-induced vomiting.
More black women (5%) than white women (3%), however, admitted to recurrent
binge eating. Recurrent binge eating is thought by doctors to be indicative of
a more severe eating disorder. This problem is defined as binge eating at least
twice a week during the past three months. Black women were also more likely
than the white women to fast or abuse laxatives or diuretics to control
Regardless of race, recurrent binge eaters tended to be overweight. For both
black and white women, those who identified themselves as recurrent binge
eaters were likely to have symptoms of psychiatric distress, such as problems
related to mood or anxiety.
Striegel-Moore says that the results of the study challenge the widely held
view that black women are immune to developing eating disorders. "The real
importance of our study is that we included a large number of black women, we
used standardized questions, and used the same approach for both black and
white women. Doing all that, we showed that clearly black women have this
problem", Striegel-Moore tells WebMD.
Physicians should ask obese patients about their eating habits as a way of
screening for the presence of an eating disorder, says Striegel-Moore. She
believes many doctors are reluctant to intrude into their patients' privacy.
"My experience is that people tend to be quite willing to volunteer the
information when asked", she says.
Susan Z. Yanovski, MD, director of the Obesity and Eating Disorders program
at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases in
Bethesda, Md., believes that physicians should be on 'high alert' to identify
people with eating disorders. In an interview seeking objective commentary,
Yanovski tells WebMD, "If you ask patients in a nonthreatening way, they'll
actually be somewhat relieved that someone is actually recognizing they have a
problem ... People who do have problems with binge eating generally feel pretty
bad about it. By letting them know they are not alone, this is actually a
disorder, and there's help available, you can be doing patients a great