x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Western ideals 'lead to rise in anorexia', UAE experts say

A rise in adolescent eating disorders in the country has been blamed on Western misconceptions of health and beauty.

Western misconceptions of health and beauty are behind a rise in adolescent eating disorders, experts say.

A study by Zayed University found three-quarters of female students were unhappy with their bodies and almost a quarter were at risk of developing disorders because of unhealthy attitudes to eating.

And while many experts blame a global obsession with western media and standards of beauty, the problem appears magnified in the UAE, where levels of anorexia in teenage girls are almost double those in Britain.

Adolescents imitate popular models and trends, and many develop misconceptions of what a healthy physique is, said Dr Osman El Labban, a specialist chosen to speak at the Abu Dhabi Medical Congress and Exhibition in October.

"The UAE has many cultural chan-ges associated with the emergence of western eating disorders," said Dr El Labban, a family medicine consultant at Al Zahra Hospital.

"There is a lack of public awareness about the seriousness of the condition, and an increase in pressure to have the ideal body shape by the media and the social changes in our community.

"Adolescents accept as their reality that fashion models are the true representation of beauty.

"Many modelling agencies choose very slim models and this may affect young people."

The Zayed University study surveyed 228 girls.

An Al Ain University study of 900 Arab girls aged between 13 and 19 found 1.8 per cent were anorexic, compared with 1 per cent of British girls aged between 16 and 18.

The two most common eating disorders are anorexia and bulimia.

"Anorexia is a type of punishment where you take the decision to starve yourself and spend many days with minimal food for the sake of it," said Dr El Labban. "If they feel like they lose control and eat more than they want, sufferers will exercise excessively.

"With bulimia, they binge eat and then vomit or exercise excessively."

He said warning signs included children not having dinner with their parents, eating less, going to the bathroom after eating, weighing themselves frequently, being constantly tired, excessively exercising, vomiting frequently or abusing laxatives and other medications.

Both disorders are life threatening and early diagnosis is key to effective treatment.

"Family doctors have an advantage because they can compare the adolescent's weight on a continuing basis and see if it has dropped," Dr El Labban said.

"Also, cognitive behavioural therapy can help, where psychologists can talk to sufferers about problems at school or at home, their worries and feelings, and can help change their way of thinking about weight."

Peer pressure, bullying, genetics and a family history of eating disorders were also factors, said Dr Veena Luthra of the American Centre UAE.

"It's true actors and models are all underweight, and everyone wants to be size zero," Dr Luthra said. "It can affect people's self-esteem and they keep dieting even after they've lost the weight they wanted to in the first place.

"But sometimes they may have been overweight as a child or it could even be related to other domestic problems, like their parents getting divorced."

Most disorders peak when the sufferer is aged 14, 15 or 18.

And while one study found the ratio of female to male adolescents with eating disorders was 6 to 1, Dr Luthra warned there was increasing pressure on adolescent boys to take up bodybuilding and even steroids.

"I think schools, parents and all people need to be more sensitive about not making negative comments about people's weight, and the focus in life should not be a focus on how people look but on a person's good qualities."

The Abu Dhabi Medical Congress and Exhibition hopes to host 150 exhibitors from 25 countries and expects 6,000 to attend.

halbustani@thenational.ae