Eating disorders are a tough issue that are not discussed easily or often, particularly in the Latino community. But research indicates that Latinas may be particularly prone to eating disorders, especially binge-eating. Eating disorders affect up to 30 million people in the U.S., but it's still something that's overlooked in our communities. For starters, not everyone understands what binge-eating really is.
"An episode of binge-eating is characterized by eating large amounts of food in a discrete period of time and feeling as if one has no sense of control over how much one is eating," says clinical psychologist Dr. Cristy Lopez. "The individual usually struggles with feeling disgusted with oneself, depressed, or very guilty afterwards."
There are two different ways this disorder appears: There's binge-eating and there's binge-eating with bulimia. "This is part of the compensatory behavior," adds Dr. Lopez. "It's binge-eating and then forcing yourself to purge (in most cases vomiting and in others abusing laxatives) in order to compensate for what they ate."
There's a lot of reasons why eating disorders such as binge-eating or binge-eating with bulimia tend to be prevalent within the Latino community, and one of them is the relationship we have with food. "Some of us have an unhealthy relationship with food since the cradle," says Carmen Cusido, a 32-year-old Cuban-American from Union City, New Jersey, who has struggled with anorexia herself.
"We get mixed messages where we're told to eat everything that's on our plate or even go for seconds, but many of us are still encouraged to remain skinny."
Traditional Latin meals also tend to be high-calorie, high in carbs, and high in fats, which can easily lend themselves to unhealthy eating habits as well. But it's the cultural messages that send the real confusion."There's this interesting paradox in Latino cultures, we praise unrestrained food consumption because it is what brings us together with family and friends, but we look down upon perceived 'gordura'," says Vicky Barrios, a Colombian-American college Instructor, behavioral coach, and therapist from Queens, New York.
"My eating habits were very much tied to my body image issues," says 31-year-old host and model Jessenia Vice who admits to having struggled with binge-eating, bulimia, and anorexia when she was younger. "This was a time when Latinas with fuller figures and curves were still getting the side-eye. The smaller you were, the more attractive and socially acceptable you were."
"With Latinas, there's a lot of pressure when it comes to beauty standards,” says Dr. Lopez. "They're not necessarily going for that stick-thin look, because in our communities curves are what's embraced. But they're also pressured not to become overweight either. So you're in this weird position where you're trying to find that balance and it plays a part in their relationship with food."
Food for many Latinos, especially the older generation, can mean things like comfort, love, and even respect, because are you really going to tell abuela you're not going to eat her food?
"I've always had an unhealthy relationship with food and my body," says Elsie Maass, a 28-year-old esthetician and single mom from the Bronx. "I've always been naturally curvy, which I get from my Puerto Rican side of the family. But my Colombian mom, who has always been very thin, would constantly point out to me that I was fat. While the men in my life would praise me for my wider hips or bigger butt. So I'd go through periods where I wouldn't eat and drastically lose weight and then periods where I'd binge-eat to make up for the weight that I've lost."
There's still a lot of misconceptions and confusion around eating disorders in the Latino community that can keep a lot of these young women silent and from getting the help and support they need. "There isn't enough awareness," says Asad Hussain, M.D., an adult, child, and adolescent psychiatrist in Elizabeth, New Jersey. "A lot of the Latino families I've worked with don't know how to handle eating disorders or even mental disorders like depression or anxiety because they aren't educated about them.
"I've had Latina patients that have had eating disorders and many of these women also struggled with depression and anxiety. There is definitely a correlation."
Eating disorders also come with a number of health risks, and we're not just talking drastic weight loss or weight gain. "I don't think people realize that binge-eating or binge-eating in combination with bulimia can literally kill you," says Dr. Lopez. "You can binge-eat to the point that your stomach ruptures. And with the bulimia, if you're doing the vomiting in particular, that's not just food and volume coming up, that's acid that can ruin your whole digestive tract, lead to heart problems, affect your menstrual cycle, cause fertility problems, rot your teeth, and rupture your esophagus."
In fact, for Vice it wasn't until she almost ruptured her esophagus that she realized it was time for a change:
"I started coughing up blood and discovered that I had ruptured one of my vocal chords. It was devastating for me because I was singing in chorus and in the glee club. That was my reality check."We need to break the silence, bring awareness to eating disorders in our communities, share our stories, and get help.
"Don't be afraid to seek professional help. It's nothing to be ashamed of. It doesn't make you crazy," says Dr. Lopez. "It's about learning the skills and techniques to help you become a healthier and successful individual."