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Understanding Eating Disorders by Dr Shaden Adel, Specialist Psychiatrist and Dr Vicki Mobley, Clinical Psychologist

When people hear of someone suffering from an eating disorder, it is easy to assume that they have a problem with food. However, in reality, an eating disorder is only the symptoms of an underlying problem in someone’s life.

Eating disorders are one of the most common health problems affecting female adolescents and young women, although men and older adults can develop eating disorders as well. These disorders are associated with significant impairment of physical and psychological health and are often accompanied by depression and/or anxiety.

Research shows that eating disorders in the UAE are on the rise. This may be partly attributed to increasing exposure to Western cultural ideals for thinness and body image concerns.

Eating disorder diagnoses fall under three main categories, and are all characterized by severe disturbances in eating behaviors and patterns.

Anoreix Nervosa
Characterized by food restriction and a refusal to maintain a minimally normal body weight. These patients have an intense fear of gaining weight even though they are underweight. The way they perceive their body weight and shape is disturbed as they are in denial of their actual low body weight.

Bulimia Nervosa
Characterized by repeated episodes of binge eating followed by inappropriate compensatory behaviors such as self-induced vomiting; misuse of laxatives, diuretics, or other medications; fasting; or excessive exercise. A disturbance in perception of body shape and weight is an essential feature of both anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa.

Binge Eating Disorders
This is defined as eating a larger amount of food than normal during a short period of time (within any two-hour period) and, during this time, experiencing a loss of control over eating. Binge eating disorder is the most common out of the eating disorders, and strikes individuals of both genders. It is however, more common among women, usually developing by the end of adolescence. Many individuals who suffer from binge eating use food as a way to cope with or block out feelings and emotions they do not want to feel. Individuals can also use food as a way to cope with daily life stressors and to provide comfort for themselves.

Potential risk factors for eating disorders
Sometimes this occurs when people experience neglect, physical and sexual abuse, and dysfunctional parenting. Others have had harmful experiences that are directly related to weight, such as family dieting, childhood and parental obesity, critical comments about shape from family and others, and an overall pressure to be slim.

Warning signs to look for
There is agreement in the psychological community on the importance of early identification of an eating disorder. There are warning signs that can signal that a friend or family member has an eating disorder. They include:

  • Skipping meals
  • Avoiding certain types of food
  • Being preoccupied with calorie intake
  • Showing weight related behaviors such as excessive exercising, excessive weighing and losing too much weight rapidly in the pursuit of thinness
  • Hoarding food or eating in secret

How to help someone with an eating disorder
if you’ve noticed any of the above in people you know, first of all, hear them out and understand their feelings. Avoid talking about food or weight to them and don’t try and correct their perception, as this can make them more resistant. You can help a loved one by directing them to seek professional help for a clinical evaluation and management. These patients will need a comprehensive assessment and accordingly the clinician can prepare a tailored care plan that includes nutrition rehabilitation to restore normal body weight, medications and psychological intervention. The sooner a person with an eating disorder gets professional help, the better their chance for recovery.