Western countries, with their strong associations between slimness and beauty, have a significantly higher rate of widespread eating disorders in their population. Statistically speaking, the proportion of India’s population suffering from eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia and binge eating is a lot lesser than that in western countries, but that doesn’t mean that the phenomenon is not on the rise. Eating disorders are usually associated with western culture, which means awareness regarding its rise in India is barely acknowledged. In the spirit of spreading awareness, we thought the first step was defining what an eating disorder is.
Defining Eating Disorders
Common misconceptions surround eating disorders, where unaffected people believe they are a lifestyle choice. Eating disorders are actually severe illnesses that could turn fatal. They are serious disturbances in a person’s eating behaviour and associated thoughts and emotions. These disorders begin with an unhealthy relationship with food, and often come along with other psychological disorders like panic, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and substance abuse. Some common eating disorders are Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, and Binge-Eating Disorder.
Anorexia Nervosa: Anorexia is often diagnosed in a person who is 15% underweight for his or her height. Anorexic patients tend to see themselves as overweight even though they are obviously not. They barely eat, and often exercise more than necessary. They often have a very unhealthy body image and refuse to accept they’re underweight. This particular mental illness has the highest mortality rate of all mental illnesses, whether it be due to complications with malnutrition and starvation or because of suicide. It causes irregular periods, anaemia, brittle bones, low blood pressure, and a long list of other issues.
Bulimia Nervosa: Bulimia Nervosa can be diagnosed in a person of any size. Affected people tend to have frequent episodes of binge eating which they are unable to control. They then feel a wave of guilt which forces them to over-correct by either forced vomiting, use of laxatives, or excessive exercise. Some symptoms include a continuous sore throat, wearing off of teeth enamel, irritable bowel, and dehydration.
Binge Eating: Binge eating is similar to Bulimia Nervosa in terms of uncontrolled overeating, but is very different since people affected do not get rid of the food but actually digest it. This usually leads to weight related issues like diabetes, high blood pressure, heart diseases and obesity. Some symptoms are rapid eating, eating alone in fear of being judged, embarrassment and guilt related to food intake and constantly overeating.
Eating Disorders in India
As mentioned above, eating disorders in India are not as rampant as in western countries. This is because of the significant cultural differences between each geographical location. However, one of the noticeable similarities is that girls are almost three times more likely to be affected than boys. Even so, Indian girls or women affected by ED’s may not present with distinctive signs of them such as fear of fatness, fear of weight gain and unhealthy body images. If an Indian female is affected by these disorders, the chances are that the most obvious symptom would be loss of appetite, rather than excessive exercising. If a fear of fatness or weight gain is noticed, it will be in those girls and women in urban areas who are more exposed to western beauty standards.
The idea that slimness is associated with beauty is a very western concept and does not originate from Indian culture at all. While the Indian culture does not inherently promote eating disorders, a sudden rise in them is definitely at play here. Dr. Udipi Cauthamadas, a neuro-behavioural expert specialising in eating disorders said,” Various studies of Indian school children have shown that disturbed eating attitudes and behaviours affect about 25 to 40 per cent of adolescent girls and around 20 per cent of adolescent boys. While on one hand there is increasing recognition of eating disorders in the country, there is also a persisting belief that this illness is alien to India. This prevents many sufferers from seeking professional help.”
Our strongest strength will also turn out to be our biggest weakness when faced with eating disorders. Like other mental illnesses in India, eating disorders are also assumed to be a lifestyle choice or a cry for attention. With the advent of the internet and social media, there is a rampant increase of western influence, and awareness about eating disorders is a must.
Why Eating Disorders Occur?
If we look at ED’s objectively, there are a list of reasons they can occur. Even so, it is imperative to remember that they are complex and the reasons are numerous, even if we are listing down the broader categories of causes here:
- Genetics: Just like any other psychiatric disorder, genetics plays a role in the emergence of EDs. Someone with an immediate family member with one is more likely to be affected by one.
- Social Influence: The pressure to remain thin often causes one to feel inadequate when above their ideal weight. This can lead to an unhealthy body image caused by low self-esteem, which finally rears its ugly head in the form of an eating disorder.
- Adolescence: Eating disorders are more commonly begin during teenage years. Other the fact that one’s body goes through changes, overactive hormones and new stimuli may assist an eating disorder.
Eating disorders, just like any other mental illness need to be treated, and negligence towards one could lead to death. If you know someone who shows some of the symptoms above, its time to get them help, regardless of the cause of it. They are immensely complicated diseases that do not get enough bandwidth in India, and if we want to be on top of it, we need to start talking about it.