Study Shows Eating Disorders Are Colorblind

From the WebMD Archives

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 WebMD.

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 health problems.

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 weight.

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 service."

Vital Information:

  • A new study dispels the myth that eating disorders are a white woman's disease.
  • Black women were just as likely as white women to report binge eating or self-induced vomiting, and were more likely than whites to report recurrent binge eating.
  • Recurrent binge eaters, regardless of race, tended to be overweight and to exhibit symptoms of psychiatric distress.