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Eating disorder stereotypes need to be challenged: social support workers


As part of Eating Disorder Awareness Week, which runs Feb. 1-7, advocates want to break down stereotypes most often portrayed in the media that do not include the wide variety of people who can face disordered eating.

They say people of colour and other minorities are also at risk, and barriers to accessing help can be especially harmful.

"The skinny, white affluent girl stereotype doesn't really capture Black and Brown folks," said Mo Bamuwagun, a registered social worker who hosted a workshop in Calgary Wednesday night on the topic.

"We bring light to a disorder that is often unrecognized, underdiagnosed and undertreated in the Black community."

Bamuwagun says an estimated 20 per cent of people who do receive a diagnosis yet aren't provided treatment don't survive.

"If we have so many Black and Brown folks who slip through the cracks, who health care practitioners do not diagnose them, if they themselves don't have that recognition that maybe it's about time to reach out for help, then those numbers will keep climbing," she said.


According to the National Eating Disorder Information Centre, eating disorders are the deadliest of all mental health and addictions issues behind drug toxicity deaths.

An estimated one million Canadians and 198,000 Albertans suffer from an eating disorder on a yearly basis.

To improve outcomes, advocates say disordered eating needs to be recognized across racial groups, and across sexual and gender identities.

"Certain groups are not accessing services. And those groups are males, newcomers, racialized communities, Indigenous and the queer community," said Marlies van Dijk, executive director of the Silver Linings Foundation, a Calgary-based support service for eating disorders.


The body types affected by eating disorders are also diverse.

As well, van Dijk says binge-eating is more common than anorexia nervosa and it's "not about food" or controlled by lifestyle choices and willpower.

"It's a combination of physical and psychological. Depression and anxiety are sort of the fundamental lead-ups to an eating disorder. It's messy. There's no quick fix," she said.

She later added, "It's difficult to talk about, because we actually value as a society when people are a certain size."

The Alberta minister for mental health and addictions released a statement Wednesday, which says in part:

"Eating disorders are one of the most serious, but least talked about mental health challenges. They affect people of all genders, ages and backgrounds, and if left untreated or undiagnosed, they can cause serious mental and physical harm. It's estimated about a million Canadians have an eating disorder – many of them undiagnosed," said Nicholas Milliken.

“Recovery is possible for all Albertans struggling with mental health challenges, including eating disorders. Thousands of Albertans are living examples of that. While the pursuit of recovery from eating disorders or other mental health challenges may be difficult, there are supports available."

The Eating Disorder Support Network of Alberta has information on support and treatment options at, and the Silver Linings Foundation offers support groups online.

Another resource is 211 Alberta, a single point of contact for information and service referrals, available 24/7 by phone, text and chat.

In addition, the hotline for the National Eating Disorder Information Centre is reachable at 1-866-633-4220. Top Stories

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