In Malaysia, there is no concrete study or systematic research done on the prevalence of eating disorders, however the estimated figure is 1% of the population having anorexia nervosa, while 3% suffer from bulimia nervosa, which would translate to between 250,000 to 900,000 sufferers.

According to a survey by the Malaysian Psychiatric Association (MPA), for every 10 to 20 females with eating disorders, there would be one male with a similar problem, but males are less likely to come forward for such disorders. Local data shows anorexia nervosa occurring usually in early adolescence, at about 14 years old while bulimia nervosa happens slightly later but still within the young adult population.

Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder

Eating disorders encompass three distinct conditions, namely anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder (BED). Anorexia nervosa has one of the highest mortality rates for a psychiatric disorder, with a 10% risk of death.

An individual typically self-starves and undergoes excessive weight loss. Anorexia, though not common in Malaysia, is an eating disorder that leaves its victims with a distorted self-image. Anorexia nervosa is associated with a host of physical ailments that can be life threatening. In short, it has to be detected early and treated promptly as it becomes progressively harder to overcome later on.

It leaves many depressed and suicidal as they are preoccupied with their weight and thoughts of becoming obese consume them despite being underweight. They could even be so malnourished that their hearts may stop suddenly or their kidneys could fail. Worldwide, studies have found that between 5 to 20% of those with anorexia that is not treated may die, according to Dr Alakananda Gudi, an associate consultant psychiatrist in Singapore.

Bulimia and BED are on the other end of the spectrum

Bulimia nervosa is characterised by binging on food. It is an eating disorder common among young women of normal or nearly normal weight. There is a sense of loss of control followed by purging, either by inducing diarrhoea or through vomiting. The individual is also preoccupied with their body image. In contrast, there is seldom any drastic weight loss in bulimia nervosa.

Binge eating disorder (BED) has been ignored for decades and was trivialised as “overeating”. The key difference between the two is loss of control, where in BED there is an utter lack of control in eating and this is followed by shame, self- loathing and disgust. On most occasions, the overeating occurs in the absence of physical hunger.

Doctors interviewed say that social media has a part to play in fuelling the ever-growing desire to be thin, especially among the young. Many youth share pictures of themselves endlessly and this often leads to them falling victim to both body-praising and body-shaming online through the incessant social media chatter on looks and fashion trends.

"As long as society keeps focusing on looks and the body, this problem will get worse. We have to shift the teens' focus away from their bodies,” Dr Gudi concluded.
When a person suddenly begin to display certain warning signs such as irritability, social withdrawal, frequently weighing themselves, preoccupation with exercise, these should ring alarm bells of a possible eating disorder.

In many such instances, the sufferer would require professional counselling services by psychiatrists, psychologists, nutritionists and therapists to facilitate rehabilitation. There are also support groups that could be helpful in providing comfort and resources for both sufferers and their caregivers to assist in overcoming these disorders. MIMS


Read more:
Malaysia’s stigma of people with mental health problems: A pressing concern
Lesser known factors that increase risk of depression