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Exploring The Racial Disparities In Patterns Of Disordered Eating ‒ Introduction & Survey Review

Written by: Sonya Surapaneni and Ananya Anand, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.


In today’s day and age, disordered eating is often dismissed as part of the daily routine. Certain habits, such as exercising for caloric compensation and avoiding specific food groups, are normalized and even encouraged. This is especially the case for adolescents in the Asian community, who have historically been abnormally cognizant of their diets. Primarily, this is due to three components: healthcare concerns, upbringing, and acculturation status.

Throughout history, the healthcare system has significantly neglected marginalized communities, leaving harmful effects in today’s world. Although the Asian population has been correlated with high rates of hypertension, type two diabetes, and heart disease, they often stay away from professional medical services (Asian Indian Views on Diet and Health in the United States 2013). 19.4% of Asians compared to 12.9% of Caucasians resort to health care visits, presumably due to costly medical care in America (Health Disparities Among Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders). Not only has this led to Asians becoming more aware of their diets at home, but this has also led to an influx of calorie counting, a direct correlation to disordered eating habits (Bharmal et al. 2018). Additionally, without necessary medical attention, the Asian subgroup is more prone to using methods of food compensation such as laxatives, purging, and higher rates of exercise per day, all of which add to a declining mental and physical health. To add onto the healthcare systems prejudices, it was reported in 2007 that Asians who used laxatives were less likely to receive follow-up medical appointments than their caucasian counterparts (Franko et al. 2007). Due to the lack of resources and stigmas in the healthcare system, the Asian community’s battle with disordered eating has become increasingly prevalent and urges for a call to action.

Acculturation is a term that refers to the changing of habits based on cultural factors. As it relates to eating for the Asian community, often, societal cultural values have played a major role. The population is constantly criticized for their outward appearances and encourages conforming to Eurocentric beauty standards. This is especially done through forms of media, in which the slim body type is praised and disordered eating habits are commended (Eisenberg et al. 2019). This unattainable image of a “perfect body” is what leads to a slew of body image issues and disordered eating patterns amongst the population.

To add on, religious influences on disordered eating patterns have been predominant throughout the Asian community. Specifically, in South Asians, religious devotion has been linked with higher rates of obesity and weight gain which leads to increased patterns of disordered eating (Mukherjea et al. 2013; Jonnalagadda, Diwan 2002; Deedwania, Singh 2005). Since South Asian festivals are often celebrated with sweets containing high amounts of sugar, it is almost an unspoken expectation that fasting will occur soon after. This religious practice and scrutinized attention to food intake is just one of many factors that promote disordered eating.

Due to how understudied the connection between cultural affiliation and disordered eating habits are, this research project aims to bring awareness through sharing the stories of people within the community. We hypothesize that East Asian and South Asian students struggle with disordered eating at incredibly high rates. As we ourselves are part of the South Asian high school community who have struggled with eating disorders in the past, we have constructed this project to determine the extent of cultural influence on this prevalent issue. We will introduce a variety of articles to Brainz Magazine, first focusing on our study and qualitative results within the South Asian subgroup. Future articles include statistical analysis, East Asian qualitative and quantitative results, and other Asian voices within the continent.

To collect data for the project, we employed a snowball sampling method to recruit 100 participants. Asians were deliberately oversampled in the sample, consisting of two-thirds of our respondents. 43% were South Asian, and 24% were East Asian, and of the remaining respondents, 17% were white, 10% were Hispanic/Latino, 5% were Black, and <1% were mixed. In order to gather the data for this project, we constructed a survey asking questions using a stress and anxiety based scale.

Consequently, the results of this survey allowed us to conclude that a large part of the young adult population, ages fourteen through nineteen, in the South Asian community are at risk for developing eating disorders, one of the deadliest mental health conditions.

As per our results, a majority of the students that responded saying they had suffered the chokehold of disordered eating habits were of Asian descent. A specific South Asian student, Preethi, says “In my family, they consider eating disorders and restricted eating (even to a very unhealthy extent) very normal. They talk about it casually like it is no big deal, and the women in my family have spoken about how they all dealt with it at a young age. However, because it’s so normal in their minds, they don’t believe it’s something that someone needs help to recover from.” Her powerful statement portrays the extent to which disordered eating habits are normalized and inherently encouraged in asian households, an issue of great prominence. Another South Asian student, Pavithra Harsha, recounts “for a long time, I thought there was a physiological issue and it wasn’t a mental thing, and that’s the view my parents still have. I eventually realized it was mental…and I have kind of resigned myself to believing that they will never take this seriously.” As Harsha ends her statement, she emphasizes a fact she is forced to believe: her own parents will never understand the implications of her disordered eating habits and the deadliness surrounding eating disorders themselves. From a similar East Asian perspective, student Julie Pham states, “My family doesn't really talk about disordered eating… I try to have conversations with my younger sister, because I believe it is so important to discuss these issues… Culturally, losing weight has always been seen as a positive. Eating disorders don't exist or they are a subject to be tiptoed around.” Through this quote, we are able to see how deep-rooted the cultural stigmas surrounding eating disorders are. As she has previously struggled with restrictive and compensatory habits herself, Pham makes sure to educate her younger sister in hopes of combating a future deadly mental illness. An additional East Asian student iterates a certain expectation for slenderness through their statement of “this definitely has to do with being East Asian as media fetishization encourages making yourself smaller.”

This account, along with many others we received in the survey, all go to show how ingrained and normalized disordered eating habits are in our society, especially amongst the Asian subgroup. Our hopes, with bringing light to these personal statements, are to bring attention to the growing eating disorder and disordered eating habits epidemic, all the while encouraging a change that begins within the household.

Evidence was shown to support our hypotheses that a direct relationship exists between Asian students and disordered eating rates. Given the significant correlation between these two variables, we think it is of utmost importance to conduct more research on cultural affiliation and disordered eating. As a continuation of our project, we plan to delve into Asian households within Asia itself, as well as relate these to the stories students within America have to share. Stay tuned for our next articles!

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Sonya Surapaneni, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine Sonya Surapaneni is a high school student passionate about advocating for South Asian communities. Through her exploration of various cultures and immigrant background, she often immerses herself in service and volunteering globally. She is also interested in making a change in her closest communities--which she attempts by podcasting and interning with other impactful service organizations. Through her global platform, YouthSpeaks, she reaches 10,000+ immigrant teens from 40+ countries worldwide! Her mission: everyone deserves a voice.





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