The number of people living with eating disorders is on the increase both in the UAE and worldwide, making World Eating Disorders Action Day (June 2) more important than ever.
One organization that’s working to raise awareness in the region, while supporting those living with a variety of eating disorders, is the Middle East Eating Disorders Association (MEEDA). The not-for-profit association was founded in Lebanon in 2009 by clinical psychologist Dr Jeremy Alford who wanted to address the lack of information available in the region and the stigma attached to living with eating disorders.
Two years later, he asked Carine el Khazen, a clinical psychologist, psychotherapist and eating and weight disorders practitioner, to become vice-president of MEEDA and head up a team in the UAE. The pair worked together to source a team of experts to volunteer throughout the region. In March 2019 MEEDA became the Middle-Eastern chapter of the Academy for Eating Disorders.
Ahead of World Eating Disorders Action Day, Carine el Khazen sat down to talk about raising awareness, the work MEEDA is doing and the prevalence of eating disorders in the UAE.
How many people in the UAE are living with an eating disorder?
There are no official studies on the rates of eating disorders (ED) in the region. However, preliminary studies and surveys show rates which are twice as high as in Western countries. For example, a survey conducted by Zayed University on female students showed that the prevalence of Anorexia Nervosa was 1.8 percent whereas it is one percent in the general population in the UK.
Why do you think this is?
In the Middle East, the stigma around mental health is stronger, and most families don’t really understand that eating disorders are mental health conditions that require appropriate and expert support. We also struggle with basic awareness of eating disorders signs and needs among primary healthcare providers. We lack ED experts and facilities to treat people locally. And there is an increased pressure on women in the region to be thin and beautiful at all cost.
Which eating disorders are prominent in the UAE? And why?
In my opinion, they are similar to the most prominent one in the world, which is binge-eating disorder. Eating disorders occur as a combination of multiple factors including genetics and personality traits, along with environmental and social factors, including weight stigma, or the discrimination against people based on their weight and size.
What part is social media playing?
Social media, especially visual-based platforms like IG or TikTok, reinforces the overvaluation of appearance for all of us; it also naturally pushes us to compare ourselves to others. Currently, 99 percent of the images we see on social media represent less than one percent of the actual population and most of the images presented are heavily modified and retouched. People only post their ‘best’ pictures. We all know this, but we still cannot help comparing ourselves to these unattainable beauty standards and this leads to body dissatisfaction, low self-esteem and unhealthy weight control behaviours. It’s become a real public health issue.
What can we do to combat this?
It is important we teach [social] media literacy in schools and to eating disorder patients, because curating your social media feed can have a powerful effect, reinforcing body diversity and encouraging people to see a greater variety of body shapes and creating an environment where body acceptance is encouraged. Social media has also proved to be a powerful tool for awareness since literally anyone can create and post their own content for very little cost.
Along with our own social media efforts, MEEDA has been working closely with Facebook and IG to raise awareness of ED in the region at a platform level, to help them identify questionable content and block it, and to redirect people searching for pro-ED content to reach out to MEEDA to seek help.
Any other contributing factors?
Social isolation due to the COVID-19 pandemic, though we were lucky in the UAE since it was much easier than most other places in the world. However, we also have seen a drastic increase in the rates of ED (just like the rest of the world).
Are you still discovering new disorders?
Yes! Orthorexia [an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating], Bigorexia [the idea that the body is too small or not muscular enough]… they fall under the category of Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder (OSFED)”.
What has changed about eating disorders in the last few years?
We now have incredible, effective evidence-based treatments that we didn’t have access to a decade ago. MEEDA is working tirelessly to train professionals in evidence-based treatments so that sufferers in the region can have access to effective and specialized care. These include Cognitive Behavioral Therapy that has been enhanced for eating disorders. The Maudsley Model of Anorexia Nervosa Treatment for Adults is also now available in the UAE.
What does MEEDA offer?
MEEDA is a non-profit organization which aims to provide support to anyone affected by eating disorders, and to raise awareness and educate the public and professionals on the subject of eating and weight disorders in the Middle East
Through its website, MEEDA offers a wide range of updated evidence-based information for sufferers, carers and professionals. MEEDA also has an online directory of expert clinicians trained in the treatment of eating disorders and offers 15 minutes of free online support provided by ED experts for anyone in the region affected by eating disorders [patients, families, etc]. It provides free awareness-raising workshops for schools, universities and medical clinics and offers training on the latest evidence-based treatments for eating and weight disorders to healthcare professionals in the region.
Where can people find you?
On April 16th 2021, we started a new free MEEDA podcast, where we talk about different aspects of what it’s like to suffer from and recover from an ED. There’s a new episode every fortnight. We are gearing up to the World ED Action Day on June 2, where we usually share new content, testimonials, materials and we also light up landmarks in purple, like the Burj Al Arab. This year, we will launch a YouTube channel with free awareness videos for parents and schools. And on June 8, we are organizing a day of virtual presentations on eating disorders in the Middle East for health practitioners.
What should you do if you suspect someone has an eating disorder?
Seek help – reach out to our free hotline via the website. Then, approach the person, not from a judgemental or lecture perspective, but from concern about the side effects of their eating disorder, such as low mood, isolation, sleep issues and general health – and encourage them to seek professional help, because no one can heal alone from an ED.
Devinder Bains is journalist of 20 years, working as a writer and editor on some of the biggest national magazines, newspapers and online publications in the UK and the Middle East. She specialises in women’s empowerment, fashion, race, culture and travel, and as a qualified personal trainer and nutrition coach, she is an expert in health and fitness. She splits her time between freelance writing and running Fit Squad DXB – Dubai’s largest personal training and wellness company.