Examining Eating Disorders in the LGBTQ Community

Regardless of background, sexual orientation, gender identity or other characteristics, anyone can develop an eating disorder. However, eating disorders are more prevalent in some populations than others. One such population is the LGBTQ community, which experiences a higher incidence of eating disorders than the general public. Likewise, members of the LGBTQ community also have unique needs when it comes to intervention and treatment. In this article, we discuss the issue of eating disorders in this community, as well as the need for proper treatment designed specifically for members of this population. 

LGBTQ Eating Disorder Statistics

Research that specifically examines the incidence of eating disorders in the LGBTQ community is limited. However, those studies that have been conducted indicate that a serious problem exists. Specifically, according to the National Eating Disorders Association:

  • Among people who identify as “mostly” heterosexual, bisexual, lesbian or gay, elevated rates of binging and purging were found. 
  • Females who identify themselves as “mostly” heterosexual, bisexual or lesbian were twice as likely as heterosexual females to admit to binge-eating episodes at least once per month over the past year. 
  • When compared to heterosexual males, gay males were seven times as likely to report binge eating and 12 times as likely to report purging behaviors. 
  • When compared with heterosexual boys, gay boys and bisexual boys are more likely to engage in unsafe dieting behaviors, such as the use of diet pills, laxative abuse, induced vomiting, and fasting.
  • Even though gay males represent only five percent of all males, they represent 42 percent of males with eating disorders. 
  • When compared to heterosexual males, gay males and bisexual males have a much higher lifetime incidence of bulimia, as well as all subclinical eating disorders. 
  • Beginning at the age of 12, gay, bisexual and lesbian teens are at a higher risk of developing an eating disorder than their heterosexual peers. 

Understanding the Link Between the LGBTQ Community and Eating Disorders

It is not yet completely understood why LGBTQ community members tend to be more likely to develop eating disorders than their heterosexual peers. However, some experts believe that the link may be related to the unique stressors LGBTQ people experience throughout their lives, especially in adolescence and young adulthood. Additional research must be done to fully understand this phenomenon. However, it is clear that a relationship between LGBTQ identification and eating disorders exists, making it important for treatment professionals to find ways to reach out to this community. Likewise, if you or someone you know is a member of the LGBTQ community, it is essential to be on the lookout for signs and symptoms of this eating disorder so you can seek treatment as soon as possible. 

Risk Factors for Eating Disorders in the LGBTQ Community

Members of the LGBTQ community may have unique risk factors that raise their chances of developing an eating disorder. Some of the most common risk factors include: 

  • Discrimination because of gender identity or sexual orientation. 
  • Experiences of violence at the hands of others, leading to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 
  • Feelings of inadequacy due to body image standards within certain sects of the LGBTQ community. 
  • Psychological distress because of the conflict between biological sex and gender identity.
  • Bullying because of gender identity or sexual orientation.
  • Internalization of negative beliefs about one’s transgender identity, sexual orientation or other characteristics. 
  • Fear of rejection from family, friends, and co-workers.
  • Actual experiences of rejection from loved ones and acquaintances. 
  • Unsafe home environments and experiences of homelessness after coming out. 

Barriers to Eating Disorder Treatment in the LGBTQ Community

In addition to the challenges and risk factors they face that make eating disorders more common, members of the LGBTQ community may also face specific barriers to eating disorder treatment and support. Some of the barriers to competent eating disorder treatment include: 

  • Lack of access to culturally-competent treatment – Members of the LGBTQ community deal with complex gender identity issues, sexuality issues and an overall experience that is unique to them. As a result, they need eating disorder treatment services that are specifically designed to address these issues. Unfortunately, many eating disorder treatment programs are “one-size-fits-all” and not designed to address the specific issues members of the LGBTQ community face in conjunction with their eating disorders. Finding treatment services that are both culturally-competent and effective can be a challenge. 
  • Lack of support from friends and family – Members of the LGBTQ community often deal with rejection from friends and family members. When these individuals are dealing with an eating disorder, they may not have access to support in the same way that heterosexual peers do. This can make it more difficult to complete treatment programs successfully. 
  • Lack of access to LGBTQ community resources – Studies have shown that a sense of connectedness to the LGBTQ community can reduce the risk of developing an eating disorder. Likewise, being involved in the LGBTQ community may make it easier to access effective treatment services. Although community resources designed for LGBTQ individuals have increased in number, many LGBTQ community members are still unable to gain access to these services and programs, either because of geographic location or lack of knowledge. 
  • Lack of education about eating disorders among LGBTQ resource providers – In many cases, providers of resources to the LGBTQ community who would be able to detect the presence of eating disorders don’t have the educational background and training they need. As a result, they may miss eating disorders among members of the LGBTQ community even when signs of an issue are present. 

Dealing with Barriers to Treatment in the LGBTQ Community

In order to improve access to treatment for LGBTQ members, it is necessary to address each of the barriers that make it difficult for members of this community to get the help they need. Some of the ways to address these issues include:

1. Providing more LGBTQ community resources. 

As more LGBTQ community resource providers become available, there will be fewer members of the LGBTQ community who lack access to the community connections they need. As a result, more LGBTQ individuals who have eating disorders will find their way into situations where their disorders can be detected and addressed. 

2. Provide better education to LGBTQ community resource providers. 

Even when resource providers are in place, they won’t be able to effectively identify and offer support to LGBTQ community members who have eating disorders unless they are properly equipped to do so. Providing educational resources and training to these providers that are specific to eating disorders would go a long way toward addressing this issue.

3. Train culturally-competent eating disorder treatment providers. 

In order to ensure that LGBTQ community members with eating disorders get the most effective treatment possible, it is essential to train eating disorder treatment professionals to provide culturally-competent services. 

Recognizing Eating Disorders among LGBTQ Community Members

If you are a friend or family member of an individual in the LGBTQ community, it is helpful to understand the signs of an eating disorder so you can intervene quickly. LGBTQ community members experience many of the same signs and symptoms experienced by anyone else who has developed an eating disorder. Some of the signs to look for include:

  • Severe restriction of food intake
  • Elimination of entire categories of food
  • Episodes of consuming large amounts of food in one sitting
  • Disappearing to the bathroom during or after meals
  • Signs of purging, such as calluses on the knuckles or tooth damage
  • Preoccupation with losing weight and/or preventing weight gain
  • Excessive exercise
  • Fear or avoidance of eating in front of others
  • Hoarding or stealing food

These are just some of the signs and symptoms you may notice in a person who has developed an eating disorder. Depending on the specific symptoms, the individual may have anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge-eating disorder or another disorder altogether. Some LGBTQ community members may also develop subclinical eating disorders, which are harder to detect but may still require some form of treatment. 

Seeking Treatment Services for LGBTQ Individuals

Despite the barriers to treatment and the severity of the problem of eating disorders in the LGBTQ community, eating disorders recovery is still possible. If you or someone you love is an LGBTQ community member experiencing the symptoms of an eating disorder, it is important to seek treatment as soon as possible. The longer these disorders remain untreated, the more difficult it will be to achieve a full recovery. 

Fortunately, even though it may be difficult to find the appropriate treatment, effective programs are available to address these disorders. In order to find the best program, it is important to consider several different factors. Some of the issues to consider when selecting an eating disorder treatment program for a member of the LGBTQ community include:

  • The background of treatment providers – One of the most important factors to consider when comparing different eating disorder treatment programs is the background of the treatment providers. For the best results, select a program that offers professionals who have an educational background specific to the treatment of eating disorders in the LGBTQ community. 
  • The specialization of the program – Is the program designed specifically for patients in the LGBTQ community? If not, can the program be tailored to meet the unique needs of someone in the LGBTQ community?
  • The location of the program – Many people are more likely to attend an eating disorder treatment program if it is close enough to home to allow visits from friends and family members. However, patients should travel for treatment if a suitable program is not available nearby. 
  • The cost of the program – Although the cost of the eating disorder treatment program should never be the deciding factor, it is still important to make sure the program you choose will be affordable. 

Treatment for LGBTQ Community Members at Oliver-Pyatt Centers

Oliver-Pyatt Centers is proud to offer comprehensive eating disorder services for all men and women, including those who are members of the LGBTQ community. We understand that these individuals have a unique experience when it comes to eating disorders, and we tailor our programs accordingly. Before you enroll in treatment at one of our facilities, members of our team will take the time to get to know you and design a customized treatment program especially for you. 

Our goal at Oliver-Pyatt Centers is to provide top-quality treatment while still preserving the dignity of every patient. We have a high staff-to-patient ratio, ensuring that you get the individualized care that you need. Because we recognize that different patients have different needs, we offer both residential treatment programs and day treatment programs. We also offer extensive aftercare planning to ensure that you have the support you need after you leave our treatment program. To learn more about enrolling in eating disorder treatment at Oliver-Pyatt Centers, please contact us today.