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Gender Identity and Eating Disorders

A study conducted by the Washington University of Medicine and the Brown School at the Washington University in St. Louis shows an increased eating disorder risk in transgender individuals. The report published in the August 2015 issue of The Journal of Adolescent Health details the first study of its kind exploring eating disorders in transgender participants. It is proof that there is a connection between gender identity dysphoria and conditions like anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa.

The combination of social pressure and inner turmoil that many transgender patients experience damages the body and soul. Treatment helps those with an eating disorder find help through medical and psychiatric management.

What Is Gender Identity Dysphoria?

Gender identity dysphoria is the medical term for identifying with a different gender than the one assigned at birth. Feeling like a person’s body does not reflect their true identity can lead to depression, anxiety and trigger eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. A 2015 study found that transsexual individuals have up to three times more risk of developing an eating disorder.

What Is an Eating Disorder?

Eating disorders have less to do with food and weight than how a person approaches them. Put simply, an eating disorder involves unhealthy and obsessive relationships with eating and weight control habits.

Recovering from an eating disorder takes time and support to find one’s healthy self again. Given the prevalence of eating disorders among transgender individuals thorough medical and psychiatric management makes the most sense.

Why Are Transgender Individuals at Risk for Eating Disorders?

There is a combination of factors involved. The Washington University study looked at students from a variety of schools including those that were heterosexuals, gender confused and individuals who identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. They found the lowest incidence of eating disorders occurred in cisgender males, that’s men who were born with male genital and identify as male. The second lowest group was cisgender females. They found the highest rate of eating disorders in the transgender community, especially in those unsure about their sexual orientation.

Transgender individuals have strong feelings of confusion because their physical bodies don’t match their personal gender identity and those feelings lead to factors that put them at risk for eating disorders. For example, they might develop unhealthy eating habits as they try to change their bodies to fit their ideal look of the gender they identify in themselves. Weight loss can effectively suppress some sex characteristics as the male body thins out, allowing them to develop female characteristics, for example.

Gaining weight builds up the body making it appear more masculine. Body issue problems are a universal concern for those with eating disorders but enhanced in transgender patients.

Eating disorders in transgender youth are also associated with minority stress; stress that stems from a stigmatized social culture. Nobody wants to feel different, yet, those who are transgender must work harder to fit into social norms and that can trigger changes in eating habits and unhealthy approaches to food. The fear of rejection, internalized negative thoughts and discrimination work together to put these individuals at risk.

Transgender Eating Disorder Treatment

The right transgender eating disorder treatment strategy can offer hope to those exhibiting symptoms. Extensively validated treatment plans focus on the additional challenges faced by the LGBTQ community.

Transgender eating disorder treatment uses a combination of psychologically gentle treatment approaches customized to find that healthy self. Most treatment involves psychotherapy along with nutritional counseling and medical management. Treatment can be done with outpatient therapy or include a residential setting for 24-hour care.  The goal is to provide motivation, learn to feel feelings as they happen and to heal.

Effective transgender eating disorder treatment starts with recognizing the risk factors. Patients and family members need to understand why eating disorder risk in transgender youth is higher and what they can do about it including therapy that tends to the soul.

The study conducted by the researchers at these Washington Universities was the first to shine a light the eating disorders in transgender individuals. It’s sobering research that shows the need for high-frequency individual therapy among transgender patients exhibiting an eating disorder.