Eating disorders among young women rising in UAE

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Two Emirati women walk along Abu Dhabi corniche with the iconic Emirates Palace in the background.
Two Emirati women walk along the Abu Dhabi corniche with the iconic Emirates Palace in the background.

Wealth is often a curse to health; especially in a thriving economy that boasts ample resources. The UAE is easily categorised as a nation where the issues of obesity and diabetes are posing a dangerous threat to a percentage of the adolescent population — especially young women.

Dr. Osman El-Labban; “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. The researchers asked students to rate their figures against nine silhouettes, and to indicate the shape they aspired to be. Almost 75% were unhappy with their bodies and more than 80% picked thin figures as their ideal body image.

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. Adolescents accept, as their reality, that fashion models are the true representation of beauty. Nowadays, working parents rarely sit with their kids to eat together as the children return home from school at different times.” Dr. Osman El-Labban, a Family Medicine consultant at Al Zahra Hospital, Dubai, UAE

The responsibility then lies on the parents to inculcate healthy eating habits among their children. Parents should be aware of what their child eats and monitor the frequency of meals. Parents of adolescents should focus on the following to be able to better identify if their child is experiencing eating disorders and may require urgent help:

  • A constant focus on dieting, food and exercise
  • If the child is feeling stressed because they are unable to exercise
  • If they weigh themselves frequently
  • Insisting on consuming different meals from rest of the family
  • Skipping meals

Adolescents suffering from eating disorders may also try reducing meal portion sizes or leaving food behind, having frequent visits to the bathroom after meals, and increasing social withdrawal.

The prevalence of eating disorders among teens includes 4 percent 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.

Dr. Osman El-Labban; “A survey was conducted last year on 900 girls by Al Ain University and it showed that 1.8 percent of 13 to 19-year-old girls were anorexic; while in comparison the rate is 1 percent 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 counselor 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.”

Photo: Jake Brewer/Flickr

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