Homosexuality a risk factor in eating disorders

by Lizzie Wise | 5/10/02 5:00am

Homosexuality may be a risk factor for eating disorders among men, according to a recent study published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders.

Even controlling for issues of psychological distress, homosexual men in the study were more likely than heterosexual men to exhibit signs of disordered eating.

Study co-authors Pamela Keel and Christopher J. Russell, of Harvard's Department of Psychology, recruited 122 men to complete 30-minute standardized tests examining their sexual orientation and eating habits.

"Sexual orientation accounted for a significant portion of variance in depression, self-esteem, comfort with sexual orientation, bulimic symptoms, anorexic symptoms, and body dissatisfaction," the April study stated.

Although eating disorders -- such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia and bingeing -- are primarily known to affect women, 10 to 15 percent of eating disorders occur in males.

"As we seek whom to target for prevention, we shouldn't automatically exclude men," Keel said.

Studies have shown that, whether male or female, those with eating disorders exhibit similar dissatisfaction with current body shape and weight control methods.

Despite these findings, researchers remain puzzled over prevention methods for eating disorders.

"We don't really know how to prevent eating disorders in anybody," making it difficult to discern what specific aspects of homosexuality contribute to a greater risk of disordered eating among males, Keel said.

While studies have shown that eating pathology is associated with increased femininity among females, the current study did not report higher levels of femininity among homosexual men, thus ruling out the speculation of gender role identification as an explanation.

"The ideals of beauty for homosexual men are different than for heterosexual men," Keel said.

An IJED study published in 1996, co-authored by E.S. Epel, found that homosexual men placed a good deal of emphasis on body shape and weight in personal ads. According to Keel, like women, gay men are under pressure to be physically fit and thin.

College nutritionist Marcia Herrin said she recognizes that characteristics of the gay community may contribute to increased risk for disordered eating.

Herrin, however, said the study's emphasis excludes heterosexual men who might have eating disorders.

"At Dartmouth, I've worked with straight men and gay men with eating disorders," Herrin said. "If we start categorizing disordered eating as a 'gay disease,' it might make it harder for heterosexual men to confront it."

"Whoever you are, whether you fit a stereotype or not, you should seek help," Herrin said. She added that as long as students keep their eating habits separate from psychological and physical issues, then they are less at risk of developing an eating disorder.

Keel and Harvard graduate student Fiona Moore are currently finishing a study on sexual orientation and eating pathology in women.

"Homosexual women might have a slight protective edge" over heterosexual women against eating disorders, yet in general, lesbians face the same disordered eating habits as straight women do, Keel said.