Eating Disorders in Spanish Cultures: Identification and Treatment

Contributor: Courtney Howard, BA, writer for Eating Disorder Hope

There is a common misconception that eating disorders do not affect men or women of color, which adds to the stigma and can keep individuals from being diagnosed or seeking help. Spanish and Latino individuals, particularly adolescents, can develop and struggle with eating disorders.

Corazon Tierra, a recovery advocate who has overcome her own eating disorder, explains, “There is a very mixed message [in Latino culture]. There is so much attention on food, but then everyone is concerned about weight.”

Rise in Eating Disorders in Spain and United States

Many professionals within the mental health field acknowledge that the rate of eating disorders is steadily increasing in Spain. The overall prevalence of eating disorders in adolescent girls is currently 4.51 percent [1] nationwide.

The public is taking measures to raise awareness and prevent eating disorders. One such action was a recent proposal for Spain’s government to ban certain advertisements for dieting products and plastic surgery because of the impact they can have on developing children and teens.

hispanic women-643276_640x424Men and women of Spanish or Latin American origin in the United States might be more likely to develop eating disorders than those before them. In 2000, a study [2] conducted by researchers at Harvard Medical School reviewed food behaviors in five generations of Mexican-American women. The study’s authors concluded that second-generation women exhibited the highest levels of disordered behaviors.

Ioana Boie, Ph.D., of Prosperity Eating Disorders and Wellness Center in Virginia, explains, “Someone who grew up in a Latino community where the standards of appearance are related to having a curvier body type, and then goes to a school into a primarily Caucasian institution… [finds that] eating habits and eating norms are all different and these are all pressures that will put somebody at an increased risk.”

This displays the reality that the often distorted ideals of beauty in America can override an individual’s native cultural influences when it comes to food behaviors and body image. A 2012 study [3] confirms that college-aged Latina women are “vulnerable to poor body image, eating disorders, and obesity.” The subjects in the study reported feeling a culture clash from their Latino and Caucasian communities.

Eating Disorder Treatment Within Spanish and Latino Cultures

The first conclusive study [4] on eating disorders within the Latino population in the United States was conducted in 2007. As researchers reported, “Rates of treatment utilization were exceedingly low.” This is believed to be due to the aforementioned stigma and resulting lack of resources typically available for eating disorder recovery within this population.

at the grocery storeThe belief that eating disorders only affect young non-Hispanic white women can prevent people of color from feeling like they have a problem though they might be struggling with a severe disorder. This adds another layer of denial to that which is already common among the eating disorder population.

This belief system can also bleed over onto medical and mental health professionals. Primary care physicians might be less likely to diagnose an eating disorder and refer the individual to a specialist if they have a preconceived idea of what these conditions look like on the outside.

Identifying and Treating Eating Disorders

Eating disorders can be difficult to identify, particularly in their early stages. The lines between dieting and restriction, overeating and bingeing, or healthy fitness and compulsive exercise can be blurred. However, early identification and intervention can mean more effective treatment.

Teacher-613309_640x425The stigma within these cultures lies not only in eating disorders, but in mental health in general. Some professionals note that physical problems can be easier for Latino families to acknowledge than ones related to mental health.

Eating disorders involve both physical and mental health, so it might be easier to address the physical aspects of the disorder first, such as weight restoration. However, neglecting the emotional and psychological components of eating disorders entirely would make treatment largely ineffective.

Parents and teachers can keep an eye out for disordered food behaviors with the awareness that no ethnicity or cultural group is immune to eating disorders. Increasing awareness of the reality that eating disorders do not discriminate and can affect anyone is another step toward breaking down these barriers and reducing the stigma of eating disorders in Spanish and Latino populations.

Community Discussion – Share your thoughts here!

Have you taken steps to raise awareness about eating disorders within your community? What steps have you taken?

Courtney Howard Image - 2-17-16About the Author: Courtney Howard is the Administrative Assistant for Eating Disorder Hope and Addiction Hope. She graduated summa cum laude with a B.A. from San Diego State University, holds a paralegal certificate in Family Law, and is a Certified Domestic Violence Advocate. After obtaining her certification as a life coach, Courtney launched Lionheart Eating Disorder Recovery Coaching in 2015 and continues to be a passionate advocate for awareness and recovery.


[1]: Ruiz-Lazarol, P.M., et al. (2007). “Prevalence of Eating Disorders in Spain: A Survey on a Representative Sample of Adolescents.” pp. 85-108.
[2]: Chamorro, R. & Flores-Ortiz, Y. (2000). “Acculturation and disordered eating patterns among Mexican American women.” Int J Eat Disord. 2000 Jul;28(1): 125-9.
[3]: Franko, D.L., Coen, E.J., et al. (2012). “Considering J.Lo and Ugly Betty: a qualitative examination of risk factors and prevention targets for body dissatisfaction, eating disorders, and obesity in young Latina women.” Body Image. 2012 Jun;9(3):381-7.doi:10.1016/ j.bodyim.2012.04.003. Epub 2012 May 18.
[4]: Alegria, M., Woo, M., Cao, Z., Torres, M., Meng, X., & Striegel-Moore, R. (2007). “Prevalence and Correlates of Eating Disorders in Latinos in the U.S.” The International Journal of Eating Disorders, 40(Suppl), S15–S21.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on February 23, 2016
Published on

About Baxter Ekern

Baxter is the Vice President of Ekern Enterprises, Inc. He is responsible for the operations of Eating Disorder Hope and ensuring that the website is functioning smoothly.