LOS ANGELES, Calif. — A new study published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders finds that eating disorder patients who identify as LGBTQ have more severe eating disorder symptoms, higher rates of trauma history and longer delays between diagnosis and treatment than heterosexual, cisgender patients.
“While we know there is a higher prevalence of eating disorders among LGBTQ folks, particularly trans and non-binary folks (with rates estimated to be anywhere from 40 percent to 70 percent), our field is in its infancy with researching this health disparity, so I believe research like ours is especially important.” said clinical psychologist Jennifer Henretty Ph.D., C.E.D.S., one of the study’s co-authors who serves as the executive director of Clinical Outcomes for Discovery Behavioral Health, Center For Discovery.
Eating disorders are a serious mental health concern, the center stated. “At least 30 million people — of all ages, sexual orientations and gender identities — experience an eating disorder in the U.S. alone, and every 62 minutes at least one person dies as a direct result of an eating disorder. In fact, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness,” according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Eating Disorders.
The most common eating disorders are binge eating disorder, bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa. The causes of eating disorders are not clear but both biological and environmental factors are thought to play a role. Eating disorders typically begin in adolescence, but it appears that the rate of the disorder may be on the rise in middle-aged and even older adults, the center shared.
The peer-reviewed academic study analyzed data from 2,818 individuals treated in residential, partial hospitalization and/or intensive outpatient levels of care at a large eating disorder treatment organization; 471 (17 percent) of the participants identified as LGBTQ. The facilities were operated by Center for Discovery.
Research shows that individuals who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or other non-heterosexual/non-cisgender identities have significantly higher rates of mental and physical health conditions compared to their heterosexual, cisgender peers.
“LGBT individuals are more likely to experience housing and employment discrimination, and to struggle with multiple mental health challenges related to minority stress; this perfect storm of barriers means eating behaviors are often overlooked,” said Vaughn Darst, R.D., who serves as operations advisor for Discovery Behavioral Health, Center For Discovery and who also discussed in a TedX talk the complex issue at the intersection of gender, body image, food and identity.
The study found a full 12-month delay in treatment for LGBTQ patients compared to non-LGBTQ patients. “Delays in accessing treatment are especially widespread for transgender and non-binary individuals with eating disorders. Some of the causes include delayed diagnosis by providers who fail to assess non-cisgender female patients for disordered eating, as well as limited access to trans-affirming treatment options, particularly at the residential level of care” said Darst.