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Spearheading eating disorder research

Research into eating disorders is not only thin on the ground in Lebanon, it is completely nonexistent. When Dr. Nadine Zeeni joined LAU as assistant professor and coordinator of the Nutrition Department in 2009, having found no research on the illnesses in the country, she decided to start her own. Hoping to build knowledge and raise awareness of such illnesses that were affecting a growing number of people, Zeeni began a study to define the basic profiles of people suffering from anorexia, bulimia and binge eating.

“I am interested in patients that have been diagnosed with an eating disorder,” says Zeeni. “There is no data on this whatsoever and this project is really a starting point just to get an idea of the typical eating disorder patient in Lebanon. At the moment we have no clue.”

Collaborating with Hiba Safieddine, a dietician and eating disorder practitioner, and Dr. Rita Doumit assistant professor at the School of Nursing, Zeeni was able to collect data from healthcare professionals across a number of outpatient clinics to profile 74 people suffering from such illnesses. The team gathered basic information including patient characteristics, symptoms, therapy outcome and number of consultations, as well as consultation fees, to get a sense of the average profile of an eating disorder sufferer in Lebanon, which could aid in defining those at high risk.

Out of the 74 patients, only one was male, but as Zeeni pointed out, “It is a taboo to go see a psychologist in Lebanon, so imagine the odds for a male with an eating disorder”. The findings of the research study showed that the typical sufferer, who seeks help, is single, female and around 20 years old, in comparison with Europe where the majority are aged around 15 to 16. The patients were also mostly from a medium to high socio-economic background, which Zeeni partly attributes to “greater media exposure”.

Perhaps the most worrying finding of the study was that most patients who seek help are already at a severe stage of the illness (with the unnatural absence of menstruation and sometimes multiple purging behaviors, often accompanied by depression), which as Zeeni says, “shows there is no awareness.” She will shortly submit her study to an international eating disorder journal to be published.

“There’s so much pressure in Lebanon to be thin and conform to the stereotype of looking good. The more pressure there is, the more people want to find shortcuts to losing weight and this is how obsessions develop,” she adds.

Zeeni has joined the Middle East Eating Disorders Association (MEEDA), co-founded by Safieddine, as a board member. In the future, they hope to establish a specialist care center. Meanwhile, MEEDA is raising funds to launch a regional helpline with trained professionals and establish a support network.

“The lack of specialist care in Lebanon for eating disorder sufferers is something that needs tackling immediately. A solid start would be to begin screening in schools and establish awareness campaigns,” she concludes.