Dubai: In a study, researchers asked a group of female students at Zayed University to rate their figures against nine silhouettes to know which shape they aspired to be, and a majority picked stick-thin figures.
The study group consisted of 228 female students at the University and 80 percent of this group wanted very thin bodies.
The study was done by Valsamma Eapen from the Faculty of Medicine and Health Services, UAE University, and Abdul Azim Mabrouk and Salem Bin Othman from the School Health Services, Al Ain.
Dr Osman El Labban, consultant family medicine at Al Zahra Hopsital, Dubai, says that 75 percent of this study group were unhappy with their bodies.
The doctor points out that 59 percent of the study participants were of a healthy weight, based on their body mass index (BMI), while 19 percent were overweight and nine percent were obese.
“In a country where obesity and diabetes are major issues, it is quite easy to overlook this dangerous trend in the adolescent population,” he says.
He recommends that psychologists regularly visit schools and universities to provide counselling to teens and children who seem dissatisfied with their bodies. “There are very few psychologists available and their work is presently done by social workers,” he says.
“The school administration and parents should be taught how to identify this disturbing pattern among children,” he believes, stating that many of the teens suffering from such issues never seek help.
The UAE has undergone many cultural changes over the years, and many influnces pervade the social environment and this is one reason for the emergence of eating disorders, a syndrome that was earlier only associated with the West.
“There is a lack of public awareness about the seriousness of the condition (in the UAE), with an increase in the pressure to have the ideal body shape,” he says. The pressure comes from the media, according to him, and adolescents accept as a reality that fashion models are the true representation of beauty.
The other issue that exacerbates this situation is that parents do not have time for their children, he says. “Working parents rarely have time to sit with their children and eat together, as they and their children return home at different times of the day.” This disharmony of togetherness often leaves many potential issues, including poor and imbalanced eating habits, concealed until it is sometimes too late.
A survey done last year at Al Ain University of 900 girls, revealed that 1.8 percent of the girls aged between 13 to 19 years were anorexic (see psychologist’s interview).
Compared to that, the rate of anorexics is 1 percent for girls in Britain from the ages 16 to 18 years, he says.
He quotes a counsellor at a women’s college who says that adolescents with eating disorders are often sleepy in class and struggle to focus on their studies. ‘“These students don’t come for help. We usually pick them out because they often faint in college and also due to their physical appearance,” said the counsellor.
The doctor plans to hold workshops in educational institutions on what should be the correct body weight for a child or a teen and how to calculate it. (BMI, body mass index is calculated by dividing weight in kilos by height (in metres) square= weight/height x height).
“Parents sometimes are responsible for the eating disorders among their children, who make needless remarks about the child’s weight,” says the doctor. “The child then overreacts,” he says.
Parents should identify eating disorders in their children by observing certain habits such as low food intake, excessive exercise, recurrent vomiting or abusing laxatives and other medication. “The consequences and complications of these disorders could turn serious and life- threatening,” says the doctor.
“Watch out if the adolescents tries to reduce meal portion size or leaves food on her plate, or if she frequently visits the bathroom after meals, and there is increasing social withdrawal,” says the family physician.
The doctor points out that eating disorders are more common in girls than boys. Eating disorders, he says, should be put on the health radar of all family doctors and general practitioners. They can be identified early through screening questions. Primary prevention can be done through health education, he says.
(Dr. Osman El-Labban will be speaking on ‘Adolescent Eating Disorders’ at the Family Medicine Conference at the Abu Dhabi Medical Congress and Exhibition that will be held from October 27-29 at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre (ADNEC).