Gay and bisexual men may be at far higher risk for eating disorders than heterosexual men, while women seem to be equally affected regardless of their sexual orientation, a new study suggests.
Researchers surveyed 516 New York City residents; 126 were straight men and the rest were gay or bisexual men and women. The results showed that more than 15 percent of gay or bisexual men had at some time suffered anorexia, bulimia or binge-eating disorder, or at least certain symptoms of those disorders — a problem known as a “subclinical” eating disorder.
That compared with less than 5 percent of heterosexual men, the researchers report in the International Journal of Eating Disorders.
In contrast, sexual orientation did not seem to influence the risk of eating disorder symptoms among women. Just under 10 percent of lesbian and bisexual women had ever had a full-blown or subclinical eating disorder, as had 8 percent of heterosexual women.
It’s not clear why men’s sexual orientation may affect their vulnerability to eating disorders, according to the study authors, led by Dr. Matthew Feldman of the National Development and Research Institutes, a non-profit research organization in New York.
Other studies have had similar findings, and one theory is that gay men have different ideals about physical appearance, and, similar to women, they may feel pressure to stay thin.
In their study, Feldman and colleague Dr. Ilan H. Meyer found an elevated eating disorder risk among men who were active in recreational groups, such as sports teams, that primarily included other gay or bisexual men.
On the other hand, men who said they felt closely connected to the gay community had a lower risk of currently suffering eating disorder symptoms. This supports the theory that acceptance in the gay community boosts men’s self-esteem and may offer a buffer against eating disorders, according to the researchers.
As for the findings in women, Feldman and Meyer say, they refute the notion that homosexual and bisexual women may be less vulnerable to body-image issues and eating disorders.
There needs to be greater awareness of these problems among gay and bisexual men and women alike, the researchers conclude.