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Symposium Speaker Series: Confronting Stereotypes About Eating Disorders and Food Insecurity

Veritas Collaborative’s 9th Annual Symposium on Eating Disorders brings together our community of experts and other leaders in the field to advance the conversation about eating disorders forward. Our Symposium Speaker Series offers the chance to meet our keynote speakers and examine the topics that will be discussed in greater depth at the virtual Symposium. 

Carolyn Black Becker, PhD, ABPP, FAED, is a professor of psychology at Trinity University and a specialist in the treatment of eating disorders as well as PTSD and anxiety disorders. She is a fellow and past president of the Academy for Eating Disorders (AED) and has received numerous awards for her work in the field of eating disorder treatment, including the Lori Irving Award for Excellence in Eating Disorders Prevention and Awareness as well as the AED Research-Practice Partnership Award. We recently caught up with Dr. Becker to discuss her upcoming keynote presentation, Confronting the Eating Disorder Stereotype: Food Insecurity.

Veritas Collaborative: What are some of the biggest stereotypes about eating disorders and how have they impacted our field? 

Dr. Black Becker: The most pervasive—and harmful—stereotype about eating disorders is that only thin, white, affluent women and girls experience them. The problem with this stereotype is that it places a small segment of the population at the center of a conversation about a range of disorders that can affect anyone regardless of age, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic status. Effects of this include the relative dearth of research about eating disorders within marginalized communities—and the significant disparities in access to care.

Veritas Collaborative: Let’s talk more about marginalized communities. One population, in particular, that has been historically ignored in eating disorder research are people who live with food insecurity. What is food insecurity? 

Dr. Black Becker: “Food insecurity” describes households that have limited access to sufficient and nutritious food due to inadequate resources, including money, to support active and healthy living. In contrast, households that are “food secure” have reliable access to sufficient and nutritious food.

Veritas Collaborative: What do we know about food insecurity and eating disorders? How does food insecurity impact the development of eating disorders?

Dr. Black Becker: Food insecurity exists on a continuum, and there are a number of ways to measure the range between food security and extreme food insecurity. In my research with my collaborator Dr. Keesha Middlemass, we explored eating disorder pathology among clients seeking food or services from a food bank/pantry and classified participants into four categories. On the least severe end, we had participants who lived on the margins of food security and insecurity. The next category was household food insecurity, in which participants reported anxiety about accessing sufficient food and limitations in the types of food they were eating, although no one in the household was going hungry. Next was individual food insecurity, in which adults reported there were hungry adults in the household but no hungry children. At the most severe end, adults reported having hungry children in the home. This is viewed as extreme or severe food insecurity because if the children in a household are going hungry, then the adults are probably even more hungry. Individuals in this last category also reported significantly higher levels of eating disorder behaviors than others on the spectrum of food insecurity.

It’s important to note that food insecurity is a distinct experience from having an eating disorder — the two cannot be equated. Our research found that 90 percent of people living with food insecurity do not report an elevated pathology for eating disorders. However, we did discover that severe food insecurity may be a potent stressor that can trigger the onset of or exacerbate eating disorders in vulnerable individuals.

Veritas Collaborative: Explaining the continuum of food insecurity into such human terms really underscores the importance of these conversations. What else can we do to overcome eating disorder stereotypes and continue having important conversations about issues that typically impact marginalized communities?

Dr. Black Becker: Continuing to have these conversations is key — it shines the spotlight on communities and populations that our field has historically overlooked. It’s so important to recognize, research, and work together to better understand the diversity of individual lived experiences with eating disorders.

Let’s pivot to your upcoming keynote presentation, “Confronting the Eating Disorder Stereotype: Food Insecurity.” What is the one thing you hope attendees walk away having learned? 

Dr. Black Becker: Historically, we thought that eating disorders were a problem for a small segment of the population—that was a mistake. Now is the time for our field to recognize that eating disorders significantly impact a wide range of communities that we didn’t consider before.

Together, we can change the field of eating disorder treatment for the better —for everyone. Register today for Veritas Collaborative’s 9th Annual Virtual Symposium on Eating Disorders to join our community of experts and other leading voices in the field—and earn up to 26.0 continuing education credits.