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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 15 November 2018

Family comments and life changes aiding rise in UAE eating disorders

University of Sharjah study finds that the influence of family members can have a major bearing on a young person’s body perception and negative remarks could lead to an eating disorder

Dr Hadia Radwan said what a family says to a child or young person about their body can affect their eating habits. Antonie Robertson / The National
Dr Hadia Radwan said what a family says to a child or young person about their body can affect their eating habits. Antonie Robertson / The National

Family influence and the transient nature of life in the UAE both play a part in triggering eating disorders and affecting young people’s body image perceptions.

A study of hundreds of mainly Arab students aged between 18 and 25 from three UAE universities found that even though 60 per cent of them were of a normal weight, 45 per cent had body shape concerns and 33 per cent were at risk of developing an eating disorder.

About one third (32.5 per cent) of the 662 students surveyed in the University of Sharjah study cited family as being an influence on their body image perception, the highest-ranking influence, ahead of media, criticism and social media, while experts said that the upheaval of moving to a new country, new home and new school has a major bearing on young people’s chances of developing an eating disorder.

Ayla Coussa, a clinical dietitian at Fakih IVF in Dubai, believes that change can be a big factor in eating disorders in young people.

“As there are expats coming and leaving, it’s a huge change for families and kids to go to a new school and culture. Many teenagers want to be in control and change is something that can be a trigger for eating disorders,” she said.

“Moving to a new country is all about changing environment, changing schools, getting accustomed to new culture and making new friends. The only way teenagers sometimes try to be in control is through their food and their new lifestyle. If it's not anorexia, it can be binge eating.”

Read more: Exam stress was factor in teenager's anorexia

Eating disorders appear to be on the rise in the UAE as the 33 per cent at risk in this study is an increase on a 2006 report that found that one in four young women were at risk.

“This is a high score for eating disorders among university students and we need to start investigating. These students are a high-risk group and are likely to develop eating disorders. We see more and more eating disorders among teens and families,” said Dr Hadia Radwan, the lead researcher and an assistant professor at the department of Clinical Nutrition and Dietetics at the University of Sharjah.

“Comments from family members affect the eating behaviour of children. We found that the comments they receive from parents, especially in the mother and daughter relationship, has an impact on future health and body satisfaction.”

The study of 407 women and 255 men, which Dr Hayder Hasan at the university also worked on, found that media, family, criticism, social media are all factors triggering eating disorders.

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"Families are pushing their children towards eating disorders and they don’t realise this. They are one of the major contributors towards developing eating disorders,” added Dr Radwan.

“The most important thing we found is the strong influence of media and family on college students, putting them at risk of developing an eating disorder. This group needs to be screened and early intervention can be done. Start early at school level and don’t wait for them to reach college.

“Start introducing a healthy body image and discussions on healthy weight and what this means.”

Lina Doumani, a clinical dietitian and expert on eating disorders at Camali Clinic in Dubai, has worked in the UAE for 13 years and has seen a steady increase in eating disorder cases in that time.

“Eating disorders are definitely on the rise and there are many factors influencing it. I see between five and seven patients with eating disorders every week,” said Ms Doumani.

“Social media is a trigger making people crave a thin figure. College students could also develop eating disorders as they move away from their homes or their safe places. They feel threatened and feel that they are losing control.”

Eating disorders are linked with low self-esteem and low self-confidence, she said.

“If the child equates their self worth to their body image then they are going to feel bad if they receive a negative comment about the way they look,” Ms Doumani said.

The dietitian said patients often confide in her her about how being called chubby or fat as a child affected them, and many say a family’s words has influenced them greatly.

Read more: Family, friends have crucial role in identifying a disorder

Ms Coussa said people need to be aware how their words can affect others and that more qualified people need to work in this area.

“We don’t have a lot of people specialising in the field of eating disorders,” she said.

A study from 2015 estimated that more than 725,000 people in the UK are affected by an eating disorder, while in the United States, the figure is at least 30 million people.