Eating disorders: Looking beyond stereotypes


By Jessi Peterson, RD
Salem Health Diabetes and Nutrition Services

Group of young people sit in a circle talking.

When we think of eating disorders, we often think about the emaciated, white, teenage girl staring at herself in the mirror, grasping for the fat she does not have on her body.

We rarely envision the 50-year-old executive meticulously counting calories, or the 40-year-old African American man “eating clean” for his upcoming triathlon, or the 30-year-old mom hiding her lack of nutrition behind the busyness of motherhood, or the 25-year-old woman of color binging after working at a high-stress job as a caseworker for foster children. But eating disorders affect people of all ages, genders, ethnicities and backgrounds. 

Consider the facts:

  • Eating disorder behaviors are nearly as common in men as women.
  • Eating disorders affect lesbian, bisexual and heterosexual women equally.
  • Fifteen percent of gay or bisexual men and 5% of heterosexual men had an eating disorder or reported disordered eating behavior at some point in their lives.
  • Transgender college students are more likely to report disordered eating behaviors than any other group of college students. 
  • Among those with diabetes, incidence of eating disorders and disordered eating behavior has been reported as high as 30%. People with type 2 diabetes are more likely to exhibit symptoms of bulimia or binge eating disorder and individuals with Type 1 are more likely to exhibit symptoms of anorexia or withholding insulin.
  • Forty two percent of teenage female athletes report disordered eating behavior, and 25% of college female athletes had disordered eating behavior.
  • Hispanic people are more likely to suffer from bulimia than non-Hispanic people and black teenagers are 50% more likely to exhibit bulimic behavior than white teenagers. 
  • Despite similar rates of eating disorders among non-hispanic white, Hispanic, Black and Asian people, people of color are significantly less likely to receive help for their eating disorder. When clinicians were presented with case studies of white, black, and Hispanic women with disordered eating behaviors 44% of clinicians identified the white woman’s eating as problematic, 41% reported the Hispanic woman’s eating as problematic, and only 17% of clinicians identified the black woman’s eating as problematic.  

Eating disorders are complex bio-social illnesses that occur along a spectrum of eating behaviors — clean eating, counting macros/calories, overexercising, feeling stress around food, feeling out of control with food, not eating, binging, purging, laxative use and many others.

Eating disorders affect people of all body sizes, from all ethnic groups, and of all ages and genders. If someone you know is struggling with food and body image issues, consider a referral to a registered dietitian nutritionist trained in eating disorders. Salem Health's Diabetes and Nutrition Services department has registered dietitians and nurses who are here to meet you where you are, and work with you to guide you on your wellness journey.

You can also call the National Eating Disorder Associate Help Line at 800-931-2237. If you are unsure if you or someone you know needs help, use this free screening tool:

Finally, if you have been a victim of diet culture, body shame, weight bias, and/or have struggled with eating disorders, consider participating in a free online conference, The Body Trust Summit, March 11-17, 2020. You can learn more or sign up for free here: