by Anissa Durham

This article originally appeared on Word in Black.

People of color, especially Black Americans, are significantly less likely to receive help for eating issues, despite suffering from them as much as white people.

Eating disorders have a complicated place in the Black community. Many folks don’t want to acknowledge they exist, and for those struggling with an eating disorder, it’s often more difficult for them to get help because they don’t fit the stereotypical mold of a person with one.

That’s because, in America, the stereotype of what a person with an eating disorder looks like is typically, a skinny, young, cis-gender, white girl with anorexia. While anorexia shouldn’t be dismissed, that stereotype overshadows the existence of eating disorders common in the Black community, like binge eating and bulimia.

Studies show nine percent of the U.S. population, or 28.8 million Americans, will have an eating disorder in their lifetime and eating disorders are among the deadliest mental illnesses, second only to opioid overdose, according to ANAD (National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders) an organization that provides support for anyone struggling with an eating disorder.

According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), eating disorders “affect people from all demographics of all ethnicities at similar rates. People of color — especially African Americans — are significantly less likely to receive help for their eating issues.”

“You have to think about what food means in Black American communities historically — we had scraps, and we had to make mosaics out of nothing,” Goode says.


Examining our culture and how it can play a role in eating disorders is integral to increasing the visibility of these disorders while also creating a safe space for Black sufferers.

Rachel Goode, an assistant professor in the School of Social Work at the University of North Carolina Nutrition Research Institute and an adjunct assistant professor in the Center for Eating Disorder Excellence, says looking at eating disorders in our community is complex.

“You have to think about what food means in Black American communities historically — we had scraps, and we had to make mosaics out of nothing,” Goode says.

Given the history of food insecurity, Goode says many Black families living in poverty had to rely on fast food because it was easy to access and could feed an entire family while saving money.

“As Black Americans, we don’t want to waste food. We value being able to give large portions, we value being able to eat more than enough,” she says. “The first thing you hear about eating disorders is white women talking about ‘we don’t eat enough food’ and I think culturally, it’s just not really resonating.”

What are eating disorders?

Many people believe eating disorders are a lifestyle choice, but they are a medical condition. Eating disorders are mental health disorders where a person develops severe problems with how they think about food and how they eat.

Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder where someone has a fear of eating and becoming overweight and uses extreme measures to control their weight through excessive exercise, starvation, and laxatives.

Binge-eating is an eating disorder where someone frequently consumes large amounts of food and feels out of control, preventing them from stopping. Bulimia is an eating disorder where someone binge eats large amounts of food and then purges — by forcing themselves to vomit, using laxatives, compulsive exercise, or diuretic use.

These two eating disorders are more common for Black people than anorexia, but because of body shape, symptoms presenting themselves differently in Black bodies, and medical professionals’ biases of what an eating disorder looks like — Goode says this prevents many Black folks from getting the proper treatment and diagnosis.

Black teenagers are 50% more likely than white teens to present bulimic behavior, like binge eating and purging, according to ANAD. Black, Indigenous, and People of Color are less likely than white people to be asked by a doctor about an eating disorder and are half as likely to be diagnosed or to get treatment.

Why do people have eating disorders? Goode says there are lots of reasons. Folks may be dealing with the aftereffects of trauma and abuse, using food as a soothing mechanism.

“We are not looking at racism. One of the causes of eating disorders in Black women is that they are eating to cope and they’re eating to just manage all of the stuff that we deal with, not to say they’re not doing it for other reasons,” she says. “You can see how there’s so many holes in the narrative.”

During COVID-19, the rates of food insecurity spiked, leaving many Black households without enough food to eat. Goode says this has contributed to disordered eating, which is different from an eating disorder, but some symptoms include chronic weight fluctuations, frequent dieting, feelings of guilt and shame associated with eating and having a negative view of weight and body image.

Erasure of Black women with eating disorders



Read more about Rachel Goode’s research here.