Race, Ethnicity, and Eating Disorders

Published: July 2, 2014

My name is Margaret Sala and I will be working at the UNC Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders as a Summer Fellow for the next 8 weeks. My interest in eating disorder research started when I worked at UNC CEED as an undergraduate VHP three years ago. During this time, I wrote an honors thesis, which examined peer racial/ethnic stereotyping in the recognition of eating disorders.

I was inspired to research this topic because although we now know that eating disorders exist across all races and diverse ethnic groups (Gordon, Perez, & Joiner, 2002), many ethnic minorities are still neglected in treatment (Becker et al., 2003). My thesis looked at whether lack of peer recognition of eating disorders in minorities could partially explain lower treatment rates among ethnic minorities compared to Whites.

We had participants answer questions regarding eating disorder recognition and health care referrals after reading a vignette concerning a patient of differing races and ethnicities presenting with an eating disorder. The eating disorder descriptions were the same in all conditions, only the race or ethnicity differed. We found that individuals frequently fail to recognize eating disorders regardless of patient race and ethnicity. We also discovered that Caucasian individuals were more likely to recognize binge eating disorder than participants of other races and ethnicities and that women were more likely than men to recognize all three eating disorders (Sala et al., 2013).

Our results differ from past research, which showed that individuals and clinicians may believe that ethnic minorities do not suffer from eating disorders. A study conducted by Gordon and collaborators (2002) concluded that individuals are more likely to recognize anorexia nervosa in a White female than in a minority female. Another study showed that clinicians were more likely to conclude that someone with anorexia did not need to seek treatment when portrayed as African-American versus when portrayed as Caucasian or Hispanic. However, clinicians appear to attend to specific eating disorder symptoms regardless of race (Gordon, Brattole, Wingate, & Joiner, 2006).

Our results suggest that there is a lack of recognition of all eating disorders—especially binge eating disorder—by peers across all races/ethnicities. Our results underscore how important it is to increase awareness of all eating disorders in all genders and all racial and ethnic groups to enhance early detection and referral. Thankfully, some university peer support programs are attempting to do this. One example of such program is Embody Carolina here at UNC.

I am very grateful for the mentorship I received from Drs. Anna Bardone-Cone, Cynthia Bulik, and Mae Lynn Reyes-Rodrigues while writing my honors thesis.


Becker, A. E., Franko, D. L., Speck, A., & Herzog, D. B. (2003). Ethnicity and differential access to care for eating disorder symptoms. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 33, 205-212.

Gordon, K. H., Brattole, M. M., Wingate, L. R., & Joiner, T. E., Jr. (2006). The impact of client race on clinician detection of eating disorders. Behavioral Therapy, 37, 319-325.

Gordon, K. H., Perez, M., Joiner, T.E. (2002). The impact of racial stereotypes on eating disorder recognition. International Journal of Eating Disorder, 32, 219-224.

Sala, M., Reyes-Rodríguez, M.L., Bulik, C.M., & Bardone-Cone, A.M. (2013). Race, ethnicity and eating disorder recognition by peers.  Eating Disorders: Journal of Treatment and Prevention,21, 423-436.

photo credit: Genista via Creative Commons