As a Black registered dietitian and someone with lived experience of food insecurity, I understand the unique challenges Black women face with limited access to food and disordered eating. Both can lead to abnormal eating patterns and distorted body image, making it difficult for individuals to maintain a healthy relationship with food.
Eating disorders are complex and serious mental health conditions that affect people of all races and ethnicities, but research suggests they may be underdiagnosed in Black communities. This underdiagnosis may be due to a lack of understanding and awareness of eating disorders within Black communities, cultural stereotypes, discrimination, and a lack of access to culturally competent healthcare.
Factors such as cultural pressure to conform to conventional beauty standards, societal pressure to maintain a "strong" image, and lack of representation and understanding of disordered eating in the Black community can all contribute to the underdiagnosis of eating disorders.
Clinically diagnosed eating disorders such as Anorexia Nervosa or Binge Eating Disorder, along with disordered eating patterns, are not a choice caused by a lack of willpower. Rather they are a combination of genetic, biological, psychological, and environmental factors. Environmental factors often include poverty and food insecurity, significantly contributing to disordered eating behaviors.
Food insecurity, or the lack of access to enough food for an active and healthy life, disproportionately affects Black communities. In America, Black households are more than twice as likely to experience food insecurity as white households. Additionally, Black women who are single heads of households often experience higher rates of poverty than other racial groups, further exacerbating their vulnerability to food insecurity.
Many Black women may struggle to afford enough food to meet their basic nutritional needs, which can seriously affect their physical and mental health. Food insecurity can lead to disordered eating behaviors, mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression, and if left untreated, full-blown eating disorders.
How are disordered eating and food insecurity behaviors related?
According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, disordered eating describes a range of eating behaviors that do not have a formal diagnosis of an eating disorder.
Both food insecurity and disordered eating can lead to similar patterns of behavior, which include:
- Restrictive eating: Individuals may limit the amount of food they eat to stretch resources or conform to societal ideals of thinness.
- Binge eating: Individuals may eat large amounts of food in one sitting as a coping mechanism for feelings of shame, guilt, or lack of control, or they may binge eat after not eating for an extended period.
- Meal skipping: Individuals may skip meals to stretch resources or reduce their weight and body size.
- Preoccupation with food: Individuals may become fixated on food, constantly thinking about when their next meal will be or what their next meal will consist of.
- Purging: Individuals may use methods such as vomiting, laxatives, or diuretics to get rid of food after eating to cope with feelings of guilt or shame.
- Distorted body image: Individuals may have a distorted perception of their body size and shape, which can lead to feelings of shame.
Although eating disorders remain largely underdiagnosed in the Black community, many Black women experience disordered eating patterns in their daily lives. While disordered eating may not lead to a clinical diagnosis, it can lead to harmful physical and psychological consequences if left untreated. Therefore, it is essential to raise awareness and understanding of disordered eating and eating disorders within Black communities and to ensure that Black people have access to appropriate and culturally sensitive treatment and support.
If you or someone you know is struggling with disordered eating, help is available. Seek support from a qualified registered dietitian and a therapist in your community. A registered dietitian can work with you to develop a personalized plan that addresses your specific needs and helps you achieve optimal health. Additionally, a therapist or counselor specializing in eating disorders can provide support and guidance for managing disordered eating behaviors.
Remember, Black women's health matters, and food insecurity and disordered eating are not personal failures but rather a complex combination of factors.
My personal and professional experience has taught me the importance of using a holistic lens and exploring the intersections of race, gender, and class when evaluating disordered eating and eating disorders.
Where should I go for help?
Connect with organizations for more information and support.
Eating Disorder and Disordered Eating Support
Emergency Food Support
- Women, Infants and Children (WIC)
- Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
- Feeding America
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