Eating disorders are gaining an increasing amount of attention in Abu Dhabi and, as with the rest of the world, presenting themselves in an ever-evolving variety of incarnations. According to a recent study conducted by university students in the UAE, three quarters of young Emiratis have body issues, and one in five is in need of clinical intervention. It isn’t the first indication that eating disorders are on the rise here: an earlier study conducted at the end of 2012 noted the increase in negative body image among students in Dubai, blaming the influence of westernisation.
Most experts explain that there is no one cause of eating disorders in individuals. Clare Smart, a counsellor at LifeWorks in Dubai who specialises in the topic, notes that they can be caused by a combination of factors, whether biological, psychological or environmental, leaving sufferers feeling unable to cope. Developing and managing a disorder is often viewed as the only way to stay in control of their lives.
‘There are diagnostic manuals used by medical professionals for mental disorders, and anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder are listed in these,’ Clare explains, but she notes that it is ‘usual’ to have clients display symptoms that are clearly indicative of an eating disorder, but don’t fit under any of those diagnoses. These are usually termed EDNOS (eating disorder not otherwise specified) and include obsessive compulsive disorders relating to food and eating, an example of which might be seen in a person who only eats foods of a certain colour. ‘It’s also very common to see clients with anxiety, depression or low self-esteem who experience emotional eating behaviours: eating when they feel sad or anxious as a way to comfort themselves,’ she adds.
There are also other terms cropping up more frequently, which Clare emphasises are not labels used in therapy, but do describe two specific patterns. These are drunkorexia and orthorexia. The former needs little explanation, and is a term used to describe a combination of restrictive eating and binge drinking, which carries serious health and safety risks. ‘Orthorexia is something I see more and more frequently, and it can often initially be difficult to identify as a problem,’ she says. ‘The term is used to describe an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating, or only eating pure foods. It is different – but only just – from the macrobiotic, raw, organic-only diets you hear about and might even have attempted to follow yourself.’
She notes that most people don’t manage to stick to a restrictive diet for very long before slipping back into their old eating habits, but the difference with orthorexia is that those afflicted will stick to a highly restrictive eating plan rigidly. ‘It often develops because an individual, typically with perfectionist characteristics, follows a restrictive eating plan with the aim of being super healthy. They will usually feel good, have glowing skin, achieve their goal weight and feel even better than ever, so they continue cutting out entire food groups,’ she explains. ‘Possibly due to fear of failure, they follow the new plan religiously, almost addictively, and likely publicise their efforts on social media or to friends – so in contrast to other disorders that are usually secretive, orthorexia is often the opposite.’
Unfortunately, there is still little scientific research on orthorexia, and Clare believes it’s unlikely to feature in any diagnostic manuals soon. Unfortunately, she has noted a worrying trend that in severe cases it can lead to the development of anorexia and even depression due to the socially isolating side effects.
If any of this sounds familiar, whether you’ve picked up on worrying behaviour in a friend, or have found a few things strike a chord closer to home, Clare says it is important that as well as physical health support through a GP, mental health support is sought via a counsellor or psychologist. Reach out and get the necessary help. Clare Smart is a counsellor at LifeWorks. Sessions cost Dhs600. Villa 996, Al Wasl Road, Umm Suqeim 1, Dubai. www.lifeworksdubai.com (04 394 2464).
Local support groups
Overeaters Anonymous The Abu Dhabi branch of this non-profit fellowship aims to support people in their recovery from compulsive eating. Much like AA and NA, OA uses a 12-step programme. There are regular meetings in the emirate – timings and locations can be found on the website. www.oainuae.com.
Eating Disorders Anonymous The website of this international fellowship contains advice on tackling eating disorders. There are currently no meetings in Abu Dhabi, but contact EDA to find out how to get one going. Membership is free: the only requirement is a desire to recover from an eating disorder. www.eatingdisordersanonymous.org.