Psychealth For Training and Services, which is affiliated with the National Center of Eating Disorders in the United Kingdom, is holding a workshop to tackle eating disorders in Egypt and help nutritionists and dietitians gain the right skills to handle the symptoms of eating disorders and establish an in-depth understanding of them from a nutritional and psychological perspective.
The workshop, which will take place at the center’s headquarters in Maadi, will be held over the span of four weeks, when a group of five to ten attendees will meet once a week to discuss problem-solving and coping strategies. The outcome of this psycho-educational workshop is to empower participants to explore the underlying emotional and psychological difficulties associated with a number of different eating disorders.
A report by the Egyptian Medical Association for the Study of Obesity conducted earlier this year estimated that 15 percent of young Egyptian children are obese–a notable increase from only 6 percent in 1990.
Older generations also suffer their share of eating disorders. According to a report released by the World Health Organization (WHO) earlier this year, the rate of obesity in Egypt has risen markedly over the past 30 years.
In the report, Egyptians are considered the fattest among other African populations, with 76 percent of females older than 15 overweight or obese in comparison to 64.5 percent of Egyptian males. While experts blame sedentary lifestyles and the rising number of junk food outlets, one cannot disregard the impact of psychological problems and eating disorders in raising these figures. Disorders such as binge eating (uncontrollably consuming an unusually large quantity of food in a short period of time), bulimia (vomiting after eating large amounts of food) and compulsive eating (addiction to food) are among the conditions that might lead to cases of obesity.
Obesity, however, is not the only outcome of such eating disorders. Anorexia (starvation caused by low self-esteem and stress) might be present in Egyptian society as well, according to Dr. Georgette Savvides, an Egyptian psychologist and director of Psychealth For Training and Services.
The workshop, which was set up by Dr. Savvides and will be taught by one of her peers for the next month, is aimed at nutritionists and dietitians who work independently or with centers in the country. “They are the main source for finding people with eating disorders,” the doctor explains. “Yet they tend not to be aware and not be able to diagnose these sorts of problems.”
“You might find a person who is a bit over the average weight, and this person goes to the dietitian to lose weight, and the doctor won’t take into consideration whether this person is bulimic or not,” she added. “Sometimes, even somebody who is already skinny, who would go to the dietitian who would still give them the diet and encourage them to lose weight without knowing that they are anorexic.”
According to Dr. Savvides, nutritionists in Egypt rarely consider the mental health situation of their patients. “We're training them to identify if a person is simply obese because of genetic or medical reasons, or if someone is overweight for psychological reasons. “
“I believe obesity is still the dominate problem in Egypt,” says Dr. Savvides, “followed by Bulimia, and the least is Anorexia, which I believe is catching up.” Looking for reasons behind the rise of Anorexia in Egypt, Al-Masry Al-Youm asked if it was related to the spread of western pop culture and the celebration of thinner bodies, but the doctor saw no connection.
“The impact of westernization on media has been there for ages,” the doctor points out. “However, we never heard of the amount of eating disorders we hear about now–partly because our culture itself is becoming more psycho-educated.”
Eating disorders, explained the doctor, can have a psychological cause. “The one common thing that may be presented in 90 percent of young ladies is a history of abuse,” the doctor pointed out. “These young girls grow up believing that the only thing they have as a measure of acceptance from others are their shape and weight. They would starve for the perfect figure, which they would never reach, because with time they develop what we call distorted body images–they will always see themselves as fat, no matter their weight.”
Going more in-depth about the different eating disorders, they all seem to be a result of a familiar term. “A person with [different eating disorders] is an addict, addicted to food. They have an unhealthy relationship with food, similar to someone who has an unhealthy relationship with drugs or alcohol,” Dr. Savvides told Al-Masry Al-Youm.
The process of helping these patients is not easy. "We all tend to have negative thoughts [about ourselves], healthy individuals and unhealthy ones, yet in different percentages, as a healthy individual, you would be able to challenge these thoughts quicker than a person with a mental health problem–let alone a person with an eating disorder," said the doctor.
The doctor provides patients with techniques to help them bring their behavior under control and look to their thoughts in relationship to themselves and the world around them–and learn to challenge them.
Dr. Savvides is enthusiastic about the process. “It’s a very interactive kind of technique! It takes two to tango in the room and most of the work is done by the client.”
It seems these issues do not have a cultural significance in Egyptian society. Mervat Nasser, an Egyptian psychologist, wrote in her book Eating Disorders and Cultures in Transition, which compares the differences and diagnoses of eating disorders between the Arab world–including Egypt–and England, that there is no significance related to the culture of the patient when it comes to eating disorders.
“It’s more acceptable to lose weight because it’s ‘in’ to be thin,” says Dr. Savvides. “The more weight lost, the more positive reinforcement and attention you will get, which is indirectly forcing the illness.”
Woman are not the only ones with eating disorders in Egypt. “Reverse anorexia is a new term for a new eating disorder that attacks men who like to go to the gym for bodybuilding,” the doctor said. “Because they still have a distorted body image and no matter how big they get, it’s never enough. It has less to do with food than with muscle mass.”
For more information about the workshop, contact the Psychealth Center:
Road 16, Villa 13, Maadi, Cairo