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Eating disorders a growing problem in the Middle East

Suffering from eating disorder: here's an image of girl trying to put a pea on the fork [Twitter]
Suffering from eating disorder: here's an image of girl trying to put a pea on the fork [Twitter]

Medical expert says issue long been overlooked in the region due to lack of awareness and accurate data; Israel recently ranked high on the list of nations plagued by high rates of the phenomenon, reports The Media Line.

The matter has “clearly been overlooked and not much attention has been given to researching this specific mental health illness,” Dr Jeremy Alford, a clinical psychologist and president of the Middle East Eating Disorders Association, or MEEDA, tells The Media Line. “On a personal clinical level, I have noticed an increase in prevalence when I compare to 2003.”

A few years ago, MEEDA conducted a pilot study with 200 college students from Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates aimed at assessing the level of awareness in that age group regarding the problem.

Participants completed a set of questionnaires which also screened them for possible eating disorders. It was found that those who had a higher awareness of eating disorders had a higher potential for developing them.

Carine el Khazen, a clinical psychologist at the Abu Dhabi-based American Center for Psychiatry and Neurology and vice-president of MEEDA, says that the studies conducted in the UAE “show that the numbers in the Middle East could be double those in the western world.

“Dieting has now become the norm in the region and all eating disorders start with a diet,” el Khazen says, adding that the main techniques used as remedies are, among others, cognitive behavioural therapy and family-based treatments.

Professor Justin Thomas, an expert on eating disorders at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi, says that the worrisome trend has swept across the region.

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“Eating disorder symptoms…are particularly high in the Gulf Cooperation Council nations,” he says. “We don’t know for sure if that translates into actual cases, but it is not a good thing that symptom levels are where they are.”

While eating disorders were previously thought to be primarily limited to wealthier western countries, Profesor Thomas says that “there appears to have been an increase in many developing nations since the 1990s. The big factors associated with a rise in eating disorders have traditionally been changes to the economy, the female body image ideal, and, at times, conflicting gender roles for women as well as growing rates of obesity.”

According to researchers, some additional factors include the growth of the diet industry, the popularity of social media and the resulting pressures, and genetics.

Dr Rachel Bachner-Melman, president of the Israeli Association for Eating Disorders and a senior lecturer at the Ruppin Academic Center, says that the pervasiveness of anorexia and bulimia in Israel is “pretty much on a par” with Europe and North America.

However, she says, “I don’t think we have serious epidemiological studies to really say that the rates are going up. But certainly, the impression from a number of people in treatment programs and those observing young people’s mentalities is that it’s certainly not getting better and could well be getting worse.”

Bachner-Melman notes that Israel recently ranked high on the list of global nations plagued by high rates of eating disorders. She partially attributes this to the widespread use of social media, with young adults and teen girls often comparing themselves to images posted online.

According to Dr Bachner-Melman, not enough campaigns have been launched to combat the problem in the Middle East.

“We need more early detections, we need more psychoeducation for parents, teachers and peers,” she says. “People need to know the warning signs much better.”

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To this end, MEEDA has been intensifying its efforts to combat the issue by encouraging those who believe they might have an eating disorder to seek qualified help.

“It is important to note that eating disorders are a speciality, which means that not all psychiatrists, psychologists, nutritionists are necessarily knowledgeable in treatment or intervention,” says Dr Alford, MEEDA’s president.

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