Eating disorders a growing concern

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Eating disorders a growing concern

In a country where obesity and diabetes are major health issues, it is quite easy to overlook the dangerous threat of eating disorders amongst the adolescent population.


Olivia Olarte-Ulherr

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Published: Fri 23 Aug 2013, 12:52 AM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 6:43 PM

“A study conducted at Zayed University revealed that almost a quarter of the 228 female students who took part in the survey suffered from abnormal eating attitudes and are at risk of developing eating disorders,” said Dr Osman El Labban, family medicine consultant at Al Zahra Hospital in Dubai.

“The researchers asked students to rate their figures against nine silhouettes, and to indicate the shape they aspired to be. Almost 75 per cent were unhappy with their bodies and more than 80 per cent picked thin figures as their ideal body image,” he added.

Dr El Labban made the comments ahead of his lecture ‘Adolescent Eating Disorders’ at the Abu Dhabi Medical Congress and Exhibition, which will be held from October 27-29 at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre (Adnec).

At this year’s Family Medicine Conference, he will focus on how a family doctor in the UAE should provide primary prevention through health education, an early diagnosis of eating disorders and monitoring of medical complications.

“The UAE has many cultural changes associated with the emergence of Western eating disorders. There is a lack of public awareness about the seriousness of the condition with an increase in the pressure to have the ‘ideal body shape’ by the media and the social changes in our community...Nowadays, working parents rarely sit with their kids to eat together”, Dr El Labban pointed out.

Parents can identify eating disorders in their children by observing certain habits such as restriction in food intake, excessive exercise, recurrent vomiting or abusing laxatives and other medications. The consequences and complications of these behaviours may be serious and life-threatening.

Parents of adolescents should focus on the following to be able to better identify if their child is experiencing eating disorders: a constant focus on dieting, food and exercise; if the child is feeling stressed because they are unable to exercise; weighing themselves frequently; insisting on consuming different meals from rest of family; and, skipping meals.

The adolescents suffering from eating disorders may also try reducing meal portion sizes or leaving food behind, having frequent visits to the bathroom after meals.

The prevalence of eating disorders amongst teens includes four per cent of adolescents with a peak age of onset of eating disorders between 14-18 years. It is more common in girls than boys with the ratio of six females to one male.

“A survey was conducted last year on 900 girls by Al Ain University and it showed that 1.8 per cent of 13 to 19-year-old girls were anorexic; while in comparison the rate is one per cent for British girls between 16 and 18-years-old. It is evident that adolescents with eating disorders are sleepy in class or struggle to focus.

“A counsellor in one of the women’s colleges in the UAE reports that ‘the students don’t come for help; we usually only notice them if they faint in college or are having trouble concentrating in class or by their physical appearances’,” continued Dr El Labban.

Organised by Informa Life Sciences Exhibitions, the Abu Dhabi Medical Congress and Exhibition is the region’s key healthcare event. The event has expanded to 10,000sqm, with more than 150 exhibitors from 25 countries.

Expert: These are ‘deadly and dangerous illnesses’

Eating disorders are “deadly and dangerous illnesses” that needs to be to curbed early, says a specialist.

According to Dr Veena Luthra, consultant psychiatrist at the American Centre for Psychiatry and Neurology in the Capital, girls as young as 14 years could present early signs of eating disorders that could lead to anorexia and bulimia.

With anorexia, a person is unable to stop dieting even if she has already lost a lot of weight. “You can die from that. The whole body shuts down and the heart rate slows down,” said Dr Luthra.

Bulimic person meanwhile eats large amount of food then “compensates by making herself vomit, exercise a lot or take as much as 10-20 laxatives a day just to lose weight.”

“They do very dangerous things. Purging (vomiting) can cause bleeding in the stomach and can cause electrolyte imbalance. They basically want to look a certain way and are willing to do anything even if it’s hurting them,” she stressed.

According to her, eating disorder is a psychological disorder that required psychological treatment.

“However, there is a stigma attached to going for psychiatric treatment (here),” she said.

At the newly-established Obesity and Eating Disorder unit at the centre, which Dr Luthra oversees, she sees between one to two patients per week.

Part of her work at the specialist unit includes working with private school counsellors discussing problems that affect their students. She said eating disorder is a big concern affecting both the students’ physical and mental health.

“The school is (often) the one telling the parents” when they see signs and symptoms, said Dr Luthra. —

Common types of eating disorders

Anorexia Nervosa

It is a serious, potentially life-threatening eating disorder characterised by self-starvation and excessive weight loss. It is one of the most common psychiatric diagnoses in young women. Approximately 90-95% of sufferers are girls and women. It typically appears in early to mid-adolescence and has one of the highest death rates of any mental health condition.


> Resistance to maintaining normal body weight.

> Intense fear of weight gain or being “fat”.

> Disturbance in the experience of body weight or shape.

> Loss of menstrual periods in girls and women post-puberty.

Bulimia Nervosa

A potentially life-threatening eating disorder characterised by a cycle of bingeing and compensatory behaviours such as self-induced vomiting designed to undo or compensate for the effects of binge eating. It is frequently associated with symptoms of depression and changes in social adjustment. Approximately 80% of bulimia nervosa patients are female. It affects 1-2% of adolescent and young adult women.


> Regular intake of large amounts of food accompanied by a sense of loss of control over eating behaviour.

> Regular use of inappropriate compensatory behaviours such as self-induced vomiting, laxative or diuretic abuse, fasting, and/or obsessive or compulsive exercise.

> Extreme concern with body weight and shape.

Binge Eating Disorder (BED)

It is a type of eating disorder not otherwise specified and is characterised by recurrent binge eating without the regular use of compensatory measures to counter the binge eating. BED affects women slightly more often than men - estimates indicate that about 60% of people struggling with binge eating disorder are female, 40% are male.


> Frequent episodes of eating large quantities of food in short periods of time.

> Feeling out of control over eating behaviour during the episode.

> Feeling depressed, guilty, or disgusted by the behaviour.

> There are also several behavioural indicators of BED including eating when not hungry, eating alone because of embarrassment over quantities consumed, eating until uncomfortably full.

Eating Disorders Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS)

These serious eating disorders can include any combination of signs and symptoms typical of anorexia and bulimia.

Examples of EDNOS

> Menstruation still occurring despite meeting all other criteria for anorexia nervosa.

> All conditions are present to qualify for anorexia nervosa except the individual’s current weight is in the normal range or above.

> Purging or other compensatory behaviours are not occurring at a frequency less than the strict criteria for bulimia nervosa.

> Purging without Binging—sometimes known as purging disorder.

> Chewing and spitting out large amounts of food but not swallowing.

(Source: National Eating Disorders Association NEDA), US)

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