Teen obesity and eating disorders like purging and diet pill use are serious health concerns. Are these risks higher in teens who don’t identify as heterosexual?
A recent study surveyed teens from all over the US about their ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, weight, height and eating disorder symptoms. Researchers found purging, diet pill use and obesity rates were higher in lesbian, gay, bisexual and “unsure” teens from all ethnic backgrounds.
S. Bryn Austin, ScD, from the Division of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital and the Department of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, worked with a team to investigate eating disorders and obesity in various teenage populations.
A total of 24,591 US high school students participated in the national Youth Risk Behavioral Surveillance System Survey in 2005 and 2007. Each participant provided information on gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, weight, height, purging and diet pill use in the past 30 days.
Of these students, 13 percent were Asian-American, 25 percent were African-American, 18 percent were Hispanic, 36 percent were white and 8 percent were listed as “other ethnicity".
When asked about sexual orientation, 91 percent of girls said they were heterosexual, 5 percent said they were bisexual, 3 percent said they were unsure and 1 percent said they were lesbian.
Among boys, 95 percent said they were heterosexual, 2 percent said they were bisexual, 2 percent said they were unsure and 1 percent said they were gay.
When broken down by race or ethnicity and sexual orientation identity, purging and diet pill use for girls were as follows:
- 14 percent of Asian-American bisexual girls purged and 12 percent took diet pills.
- 24 percent of African-American unsure girls purged and 9 percent took diet pills.
- 15 percent of African-American lesbian girls purged and 7 percent of bisexual girls took diet pills.
- 27 percent of Hispanic lesbian girls purged and 45 percent took diet pills.
- 15 percent of white lesbian girls purged and 18 percent took diet pills.
In heterosexual girls, the highest rates of purging were 6 percent, which were found in Hispanic, white and other ethnicity groups. In heterosexual girls, the highest rates of diet pill use were 5 percent, which were found in the white and other ethnicity groups.
Obesity was highest in African-American lesbian and bisexual girls at 19 and 27 percent, respectively. With the exception of Asian-American lesbian, bisexual and unsure girls, obesity was found in every ethnicity and sexual orientation.
When broken down by race or ethnicity and sexual orientation identity, purging and diet pill use for boys were as follows:
- 19 percent of Asian-American bisexual boys purged and 21 percent took diet pills.
- 35 percent of African-American bisexual boys purged and 42 percent took diet pills.
- 15 percent of African-American gay boys purged and 18 percent took diet pills.
- 18 percent of Hispanic unsure boys purged and 30 percent took diet pills.
- 30 percent of Other ethnicity boys purged and 20 percent took diet pills.
- 16 percent of white gay boys purged and 13 percent took diet pills.
In heterosexual boys, 5 percent was the highest rate of purging, which was found in African-American boys. In heterosexual boys, 4 percent was the highest rate of diet pill use, which was found in the Hispanic and other ethnicity groups.
For boys, obesity was present in every sexual orientation and ethnicity, but was highest in bisexual Hispanics at 50 percent.
The authors concluded, “Interventions to reduce eating disorders and obesity that are appropriate for lesbian, gay and bisexual youths of diverse ethnicities are urgently needed.”
Eating disordered behavior and obesity was higher in both boys and girls who did not identify as heterosexual across all ethnicities in this large-scale national study.
This study was published in January in the American Journal of Public Health.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the IMPACT LGBT Health and Development Program at Northwestern University and other health foundations provided funding for this project. No conflicts of interest were found.