The LGBTQ Community is Silently Struggling with Eating Disorders

What are eating disorders, why are they predominant in the LGBTQ community, and what, if anything, can we do about them?

Health Mental Health Simon Elstad

This article was published on August 16th, 2021

LGBTQ+ individuals are more likely to experience severe eating disorders than hetero and cisgender people.

In a study published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, researchers found that people who identify as LGBT exhibit more serious eating disorder symptoms.

Also, unlike their straight peers, LGBT have significantly higher rates of trauma history and face longer delays between diagnosis and treatment.

Eating disorders are especially prevalent in trans and non-binary people. Statistics show that between 40-70 percent of these individuals suffer from an eating disorder.

Photo by Diana Polekhina on Unsplash

What’s an eating disorder?

Eating disorders are a collection of psychological conditions that lead to unhealthy eating habits.

While all have food and eating as a component, they are complex conditions that often require expert medical and psychological intervention.

In severe cases, eating disorders can lead to serious health complications and even death. People with eating disorders display a range of symptoms, such as:

  • Severely restricting food intake
  • Binging on food
  • Purging behaviors, e.g., vomiting and over-exercising

There are six most common eating disorders. They include:

  • Binge eating disorder – People with this disorder typically consume enormous amounts of food in very short periods of time. They also do not restrict calories or use food purging techniques.
  • Anorexia nervosa – People with anorexia severely restrict their calorie intake and avoid certain foods because they view themselves as overweight, even when they are seriously underweight.
  • Bulimia nervosa – Individuals who have bulimia typically eat vast amounts of food in a short period and then purge to compensate for ingested calories and relieve gut discomfort. Interestingly, people with bulimia tend to maintain a relatively normal weight.
  • Pica – People with this disorder typically eat things not usually considered food, such as soil, rocks, soap, paper, hair, cloth, laundry detergent, etc. They are at an increased risk of poisoning, injuries, and even death,
  • Rumination disorder – Individuals with rumination eating disorder voluntarily regurgitate previously chewed and swallowed food. They then re-chew and either swallow or spit the food.
  • Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder – People with this disorder lack interest in eating or a distaste for certain foods, smells, tastes, colors, and even textures.

What causes these eating disorders remains unclear. However, biological and environmental factors seem to play a role.

Eating disorders prevalence in the LGBT community

Eating disorders sometimes manifest deep-rooted psychological problems.

It’s an open secret that most gay men struggle with body image issues. We’ve been constantly fed this erroneous image of the ideal gay man as a perfectly proportioned and chiseled Greek god with abs to boot.

But people are different. Genetics alone bar people from ever coming near the ideal.

Besides body image issues, LGBT persons face many other stress-and-anxiety-inducing situations that predispose them to develop eating disorders.

For instance, gay people are more likely to experience discrimination and harassment at work, in school, or even seeking housing. They also struggle with other mental health issues, including gender identity.

Other stressors that may contribute to the growing eating disorder prevalence in the LGBT community include:

  • Living in fear of abuse and harassment which may develop into PTSD
  • Experiencing homelessness or living as a runaway
  • Internalizing negative messages from family, friends, and society

All these stressors combined form the perfect recipe for the formation of some eating disorders in gay men.

As you’d imagine, eating disorders are especially pronounced among LGBT teens who are still developing their identity.

In a report by the National Eating Disorder Organisation (NEDA), more than half of LGBT youth between ages 13 and 24 have experienced an eating disorder at some point in their life.

The report also revealed that young people struggling with eating disorders are more likely to consider suicide. In fact, ninety-six percent of those diagnosed with bulimia had considered suicide.

Shockingly too, 66 percent of those who have considered suicide had been diagnosed with an eating disorder.

What can you do about it?

If you or anyone you know suffers from an eating disorder, seek, and urge them to seek immediate medical attention.

Eating disorders can be fatal sometimes. The earlier you start receiving treatment, the better.

Beyond the individual, this is a conversation we must have as the gay community. Why are so many of us struggling with mental health issues, and what can we do about it?

Part of it is structural. LGBT people have been and continue to face discrimination, abuse, hatred, and harassment. While we’ve made progress as a community in securing fundamental rights and freedoms, we’re still far from achieving perfect equality.

We can blame society, our parents, the church, governments, and a whole slew of people and institutions for our mental health burdens, but that gets us nowhere.

Instead, let’s make this our issue. Let’s talk about it and encourage others to share their feelings and struggles. Let’s make talking about mental health routine.

Regularly check in with your friends. Learn what’s happening in their lives and offer help and support where needed.

We can’t solve all LGBT stressors and triggers in a single swoop. No magic wand exists yet for that. But we can start fighting back by empowering community members with coping mechanisms and being there for each other.

Yes, eating disorders are deeply personal experiences, but perhaps we can start bringing the numbers down by sharing our experiences and supporting each other.

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