On Dec. 10, NPR launched an article regarding the impact of cultural messages on eating behavior and ultimately eating disorders. The continued comparative dearth of research on eating disorders in varied ethnic and racial groups helps to limit an understanding of how different types of messages could influence eating disorders.
NPR interviewed Mae Lynn Reyes-Rodríguez, currently a clinical psychologist at the University of North Carolina Center for Excellence in Eating Disorders in Chapel Hill, about her experience and insight regarding these harmful cultural messages. Reyes-Rodríguez emphasized that in Latino culture, food messages regarding finishing all the food on your plate are plentiful. Children are also routinely rewarded using food, disrupting the body’s natural hunger and satiety cues and associating food with an emotion rather than a source of sustenance.
Although eating disorders are brain-based, biological diseases, these types of messages can influence binge eating and bulimia in those already predisposed. And although there is greater recognition that eating disorders can affect different races, ethnicities, and socioeconomic groups, access to treatment is not always equal. If accessible, the treatment may also not be culturally-informed or culturally-sensitive, limiting its effectiveness in relating to the patient’s needs.
Gloria Lucas, founder of Nalgona Positivity Pride (NPP), a body positivity website designed to be approachable for people of different racial and ethnic groups to get support and find information on treatment. NPP also hosts a semimonthly eating disorders support group that encourages diversity. Reyes-Rodríguez noted that there is substantial negativity and stigma towards mental health treatment among different ethnic groups, which is why it is so important to have culturally competent and sensitive professionals and treatment programs. NPP is just one of those organizations trying to meet that need.
Lynn Chen, an Asian-American, has tried to meet a similar need among her ethnic group and created the group “Thick Dumpling Skin” to address body concerns. The cultural and competing messages she received as a child to eat a large amount of food but to remain skinny, helped foster a dangerous binge and purge lifestyle, as well as anorexia. She aims now to help bring raise a greater awareness about eating disorders among Asian-Americans to help them combat some of these messages.
With greater recognition that eating disorders do not discriminate and effect all races, cultures, genders, and ages there will also have to arise effective means of treating these different populations with culturally competent care. There is a movement to do so and the experiences of those who have battled eating disorders within different cultural messages will help to shape future treatment.