BEIRUT: Every day, 23 people in the world die from medical complications related to an eating disorder, according to the International Journal of Eating Disorders. Also, 1 in 5 people suffer from an eating disorder globally. But when it comes to the Middle East, the numbers become more ambiguous and debatable, experts note, mostly due to the fact that awareness on eating disorders, and thus reported cases, is very low.
“When it comes to eating disorders, we don’t have accurate statistics today in Lebanon and the Middle East. The statistics we have are based on extrapolation of figures from the Western world,” clinical psychologist and eating disorders specialist Dr. Jeremy Alford told Annahar. “But we do know for sure that the region has double the number of eating disorders as in the West.”
Alford is the co-founder of the Lebanon-based Middle East Eating Disorders Association (MEEDA), the only association of its kind in the region. It has been working on raising awareness around eating disorders and treating individuals affected by these diseases since its inception in 2009.
“We’re currently working on the first national prevalence study of [eating disorders] in Lebanon in collaboration with the National Mental Health Programme (NMHP) and [possibly] a number of private universities,” Alford, a British who is proud of his Lebanese roots, told Annahar.
Alford decided to start MEEDA back when he was a practicing physician in Lebanon in 2009. Being one of the few people specialized in eating disorders at the time, he was shocked to see that there was very little awareness of these disorders. In fact, people tended to “blame the patients and hold them accountable for their disease,” he said.
“There was very little support given to people suffering from eating disorders, and there was a general lack of awareness on this topic. Also, the treatments used for such disorders at the time were very old techniques that were not evidence-based,” Alford told Annahar. “I just took it upon myself to do something about it and focus solely on eating disorders.”
The fact that he had members of his own family struggling with Anorexia Nervosa only spurred him even more to take action. Alford teamed up with registered dietitian Hiba Safieddine and together they tried to register their NGO before discovering they needed more people on board to be considered legitimate. “In the end, I had to register the organization with five founding members, because that was the law at the time,” he said. “But it was mostly me and Hiba in the beginning.” The association, which runs on volunteers, began by gathering a support group once a week for patients free of charge.
They then began approaching schools and universities in an attempt to raise awareness about eating disorders, especially because the youth are the most vulnerable group in developing such disorders.
“It was difficult at first to get people to recognize the importance of this topic. It needed a lot of convincing, especially because we weren’t a well established institution. But we managed to persevere and become affiliated with institutions in the UK and other countries,” said Alford. “We also are the first organization to introduce training for professionals who want to specialize in eating disorders.”
Since its inception, MEEDA has conducted hundreds of workshops in schools, universities and public spaces. Alford himself has encountered hundreds of patients, mainly youth who were “scared or confused.”
Despite all these achievements, money is tight and funding remains an issue, which is why MEEDA has no centralized location for patients seeking help. They rely on their online platform to offer advice to patients who send them emails from all over the region. They also refer them to medical doctors, nutritionists or psychologists (or all three, depending on the severity of the case).
“MEEDA is not a clinic or a treatment center,” says Alford. “We are simply professionals that are working independently from independent locations. It is definitely one of our aims to have the funding one day that will allow us to have a clinic and offer help for people who don’t have the means to receive treatment.”
A few months ago, MEEDA became the official chapter of the Academy of Eating Disorders (AED) in the Middle East. “It is a true privilege for us to get this certification and it reflects our high ethical standards and our commitment to deliver,” said Alfrod.
The best thing about his work, he says, is the curiosity that students display at MEEDA’s workshops.
“The students are thrilled, they have so many questions we cannot even finish our presentation, and it’s really very rewarding,” MD, eating specialist and MEEDA volunteer Joumana Warde Kamar told Annahar. “They are really curious and that is a good thing.”
According to Kamar, the trigger of 100 percent of eating disorders is dieting of any kind. “Every disease has its own manifestations, but the trigger is one: starting a diet.” The spectrum of eating disorders varies from Anorexia Nervosa to Bulimia Nervosa, Binge Eating Disorder, Bigorexia, Night Eating Syndrome and others, she says.
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