Eating Disorders' Global SpreadEating disorders are often presented as a western-world problem. Portrayals of eating disorders (EDs) to the general public suggest white, middle to upper-class females are the ones mostly affected. However, ED statistics demonstrate that all races, genders and ethnic groups are susceptible. As westernization continues, eating disorders’ global spread ignites.

Eating disorders cause approximately one death every 62 minutes. Medical professionals agree this number is likely higher because many ED cases are overlooked and not recorded as the cause of death. Out of all mental illnesses, “eating disorders have the highest mortality rate.” In developing countries where mental health resources are scarce, untreated people live dangerously exposed.

Increased Risk in Developing Countries

The long term health consequences associated with EDs are brutal. Typically, in countries where psychiatric help is unavailable, general healthcare services are lacking for those below the poverty line. Furthermore, in countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), mental illness is a serious taboo. Although sterilization is no longer a treatment for people experiencing mental health problems, there are still a lot of stigmas associated with them. They often lead to discrimination and prevent people from seeking help when needed. In these countries, psychiatric professionals able to help are nearly impossible to find.

In circumstances where someone living with an ED is not able to access medical assistance, the lack of access to treatment has persistent ramifications on a person’s body, such as experiencing pain caused by blocked intestines, muscle deterioration, cardiac pain, tooth decay or swollen jaw.

People living long-term with an ED have higher mortality rates. Living with an ED in a developing country is often a death sentence. Causes of death can include stomach ruptures, esophagus tears, kidney failure and cardiac arrest. To see reduced ED fatality rates, countries need psychiatric and medical resources. The number of countries that cannot provide these services advances the global spread of eating disorders.

Why Eating Disorders Occur in Impoverished Countries

The expansion and acceptance of Western culture are largely responsible for increasing ED cases around the world. Multiple studies evaluated the extent to which Westernization affects the elevated rate of eating disorder populations.

On the islands of Fiji, researchers conducted an observational study of EDs. The results of the study showed the impact of Western media. In the past, Fijians valued heavier body types as the image of beauty. When TV became commonly available in Fijian society during the late 1900s, ED rates were less than 1%. Three years later, a survey found 15% of teenage girls in Fiji vomited to keep their weight down.

An article published by the University of Columbia in the Journal of Eating Disorders analyzed Asia’s reaction to Westernization. The findings disprove the notion that eating disorders occur only in Western cultures. The article concludes by expanding the concept to all developing countries. These results strongly suggest that “eating disorders are not culture-bound or culture-specific, but rather culture-reactive.”

Westernization influences nearly every country in the world. Urbanization, population growth and newly introduced media further perpetuate eating disorders’ global spread. The most vulnerable countries are those that have little protection against virtually any form of addiction.

Outreach Combating Eating Disorders’ Global Spread

Eating disorder communities and organizations reach beyond their home countries. Outreach projects, such as international conferences, online training and collaboration between countries’ healthcare services, help protect people who are living with an ED and deprived of treatment. 

Originally the national charity Beat was solely based in the U.K. Now, Beat partners with international efforts in providing ED relief. The charity’s most well-known contribution is its international helpline service. Beat responded quickly to the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, seeing helpline calls escalate by 30%. In response, Beat offers an online training course to recruit more volunteers.

The International Association of Eating Disorders Professionals Foundation (IAEDP Foundation) plays a role in halting eating disorders’ global spread. The IAEDP Foundation provides high-quality ED education to international multidisciplinary groups. Core courses and certifications are available in a home study format. The goal is to improve ED knowledge amongst medical professionals so people living with EDs have more opportunities for support. 

The Austrian Society on Eating Disorders (ASED) dedicates itself to establishing a network of occupational groups with ED experience. As an international network, ASED creates guidelines catered specifically to each country’s culture. ASED encourages countries to begin scientific research in ED detection, treatment and prevention. By fostering international co-operation and education, ASED hopes to expand ED resources.

Hope for the Future

Eating disorders are complex and threatening illnesses. In the Western world, health checkups and residential treatment options, in addition to emotional and nutritional therapy, encourage recovery. However, even with these resources, ED recovery can take years; if unsuccessful, EDs may result in death. For those living in highly impoverished countries, years easily turn into lifetime struggles with EDs that could end one’s life abruptly. Luckily, outreach programs enhance efforts to bring awareness and ultimately decrease ED casualty rates. Without these promising efforts, eating disorders’ global spread would continue to permeate communities around the world.

Grace Elise Van Valkenburg

Photo: U.N.