Research shows gay and bisexual young people at greater risk of ‘disordered eating’

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Gay or bi young people are at a higher risk of developing eating disorders, compared to straight peers, new research has found.

The University of British Columbia has found that gay, lesbian or bisexual young people are more likely to purge, fast, or take diet pills in an effort to lose weight.


While numbers, particularly for lesbian and bi girls have increased, the number of eating disorders among straight peers has fallen.

The study looked at 26,000 students in Massachusetts and data was gathered between 1999 and 2013.

“Our study has found that it’s only getting worse for lesbian and bisexual girls,” said lead researcher Ryan Watson.

Published this week in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, the study notes that the state of Massachusetts is one of very few that has since 1991, asked the sexual orientation of young people in surveys.

The research found that in 2013, lesbians were twice as likely to say they purged or fasted than in 1999. Those behaviours were previously more prevalent among bisexual girls at 33 percent in 1999, compared to lesbians, at 22 percent.

But 36 percent of lesbian girls said they had either purged or fasted in 2013.

This compares to 8 percent of straight girls saying the purged in 1999 compare to 5 percent in 2013.

Straight boys were the lowest group to report purging, and the percentage declined over the 14 year period.

Dr Watson said programmes to reduce eating disorders should target LGB kids specifically, adding that healthy eating and body image initiatives didn’t seem to have had an effect on queer kids.

Researchers said the behaviours they describe as “disordered eating”, including fasting and purging, does not necessarily constitute an eating disorder, but that the young people were at risk of developing a disorder in future.

Pei-Yoong Lam, a paediatrician in the eating disorders program at BC Children’s Hospital said: “Kids who are lesbian, gay or bisexual or transgender are at risk of various conditions, particularly mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety. There also tend to be more risk-taking behaviours in this population and it really is about the support that they receive in the community.”

Laird Birmingham, who has treated eating disorders for 40 years and runs a private clinic, told the Globe and Mail: “The government has no specific programs for individuals in those categories,” he said.

“They have to be allowed to hear things in the context of their beliefs, of their life, how it’s developing, and the challenges they have sexually,” he said, adding that it’s all the more important in small-group therapy.

“The messaging has to be specific, just the same as it has to be for males and females. In fact, even the tests that diagnose eating disorders are different based on different ethnicities.”