According to the American Psychological Association, eating disorders are characterized by “a persistent disturbance in eating behaviour“. The most common eating disorders are anorexia nervosa and bulimia, both of which have as their central feature a deep-seated fear of becoming overweight or fat, and a pursuit of an unrealistic ideal of thinness.
Another eating disorder that has recently received attention is binge eating disorder, which involves uncontrollable overeating, commonly leading to obesity. The seriousness of eating disorders is escalated due to the fact that people with eating disorders commonly develop medical conditions, such as malnutrition, osteoporosis, and kidney failure (for anorexia nervosa), and throat tears, low potassium levels, and enlarged salivary glands (for bulimia).
Thus, there is no denying the fact that eating disorders present a serious concern. However, when it comes to southern Asia, there is woefully inadequate information about the prevalence and treatment of eating disorders. Eating disorders have an estimated worldwide prevalence of 2% and occur more commonly among women, but there is no epidemiological data from community or hospital settings about the prevalence of eating disorders in India.
One explanation for this lack of data is that eating disorders have a much lower prevalence in India, due to cultural differences between the east and the West. However, given the rapid rate of westernization, the number of cases being reported in the Indian context increases, which underlines the need for gathering data in the Indian context.
Some estimates suggest that the number of adolescents with some sort of disordered eating can be as high as 25% among girls (Parry, 2019). Single-setting retrospective studies to estimate eating disorders’ prevalence to be 1.5% in rural settings (Ramaiah, 2015). Additionally, there are no culturally sensitive instruments currently existing to screen individuals for eating disorders, which is extremely problematic (Vaidyanathan, 2019).
With regard to treatment as well, there is a very limited number of settings/organizations that provide treatment for eating disorders. The MINDS Foundation and the Sangath foundation in Goa are two exceptions that provide services specifically for eating disorders.
To conclude, due to rapid social and cultural changes, eating disorders are increasingly becoming a concern in India. In order to deal with this public health concern, it is of utmost importance to study the frequency of eating disorders in India and develop culturally specific modes of treatment.