Does Sexual Orientation Affect Eating Behaviors in Teens?

Adolescents experience unique stressors. In addition to facing stress associated with family issues, childhood experiences, and academic concerns, they also face stress related to peer acceptance and identity formation. The teen years represent a time when children begin to discover who they are. They acknowledge their social, personal, and sexual identities. Also, children of various ethnic backgrounds may find themselves in settings with other ethnic groups for the first time in their lives. All of these factors combine to create a distinct pattern of stress for adolescents. It is during adolescence that many psychological problems first develop. Issues with substance misuse, depression, anxiety, and eating and dieting may manifest as problematic during adolescence for many young people experiencing stress. Eating problems are especially concerning as maladaptive eating behaviors can carry over into adulthood, putting people at increased risk for long term physical health risks including obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. Therefore, understanding the risk factors for eating problems in adolescents could help in the formation of interventions targeted at specific youth groups.

S. Bryn Austin of the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Harvard University wanted to better identify which teens were most at risk for negative eating behaviors as a result of stress. She looked at how sex, race, and sexual orientation affected eating patterns in a sample of over 24,000 high school students and found that lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) teens were more likely to use diet pills and engage in purging behavior regardless of their sex. She also found that bisexual teens were more likely to be obese than heterosexual teens.

Further, Austin discovered that sexual orientation had a significant impact on eating disorder risk. Regardless of the ethnicity of the teens, bisexual and lesbian girls had a threefold risk of using negative eating strategies, including dieting, purging, and diet pills, when compared to heterosexual girls. Also, the bisexual and homosexual boys were four times more likely to adopt negative eating behaviors when compared to heterosexual boys. Ethnicity also played a part in increasing eating issue risk. Specifically, Asian- and African-American girls had fewer eating problems than white girls, while African-American and Latino boys had more eating problems than white boys. These findings demonstrate that particular stressors that are common in certain groups of young people could contribute to eating problems. Clinicians, parents, and educators should be mindful of these stressors across various groups of adolescents. “In addition,” said Austin, “Interventions that are appropriate for sexual orientation minority youths of diverse ethnicities are urgently needed to eliminate stressors and other factors contributing to these disparities.”

Austin, S. B., et al. (2013). Eating disorder symptoms and obesity at the intersections of gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation in US high school students. American Journal of Public Health 103.2 (2013): E16-22. ProQuest. Web.

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  • adrian s

    April 5th, 2013 at 8:09 PM

    why r these kids adopting these negative things? its simple-cause they r under stress-either due to their orientation n d bias or due to not being open bout heir orientation due to fear. stress can drive the best of us into stupid things. these r adolescent after all.

  • Sampson

    April 6th, 2013 at 7:18 AM

    Think that this would have something to do with these teens just feeling really uncomfortbale with who they are and just generally confused about sexuality and how theirs fits into what society generally expects?

  • Randall

    April 7th, 2013 at 6:16 AM

    There is a great deal of pressure in the gay community to be thin, especially among gay men. I have experienced that myself, and so I can see that eating disorders can seriously become a part of your life if you get sucked into that whole thing baout needing to look good all the time.

  • tyree

    April 8th, 2013 at 3:59 AM

    But I have to tell you, coming from a more diverse background than perhaps some other readers, this is not something that is very much stressed in our community.

    We see this as a problem that white kids have and not black kids. It is there but we just don’t talk about it as much. I guess most people feel like we have bigger fish to fry than worrying about how someone is dealing with their weight. I get it that is is a big deal, but I can tell you that it is not viewed as that by the majority of people that I know.

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