Of eating disorders, body image, wazwan: A dietician demystifies Kashmiri food culture

Photo Credit: Marryam H Reshii.

Beenish Zohra is a Kashmiri researcher and dietitian — providing nutritional guidance for all ages. With a Master’s in Food Science and Nutrition and a current PhD pursuit, she expertly addresses the impact of diet on health and well-being. In a conversation with Free Press Kashmir, she talks about eating disorders creating widespread concerns across the valley today.

How do cultural practices, such as the traditional Kashmiri feast of ‘Wazwan’, impact an individual’s relationship with food and their risk for developing eating disorders?

Cultural practices, such as the traditional Kashmiri feast of ‘Wazwan’, can have both positive and negative impacts on an individual’s relationship with food and their risk for developing eating disorders.

On one hand, cultural food traditions can provide a sense of community and comfort and foster positive attitudes towards food. The celebration of food in cultural events, like the ‘Wazwan’, can promote the enjoyment of meals as a shared experience with loved ones.

On the other hand, cultural pressure to conform to traditional norms around food, body size, and appearance can contribute to the development of disordered eating behaviors. For instance, some cultural practices may emphasize the importance of overeating or finishing everything on one’s plate, leading to feelings of guilt or shame if these expectations are not met.

It is important to be aware of these cultural influences and find a balance that allows for appreciation of cultural food traditions while promoting a healthy relationship with food. This can include understanding and recognizing the pressure to conform to cultural norms and making intentional choices about which cultural practices to adopt or modify in order to prioritize one’s own well-being

As an expert dietician, can you provide a clear and comprehensive definition of an eating disorder for our audience, and how it is differentiated from disordered eating or other related conditions?

Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses characterized by an obsession with food, weight, and shape. This results in harmful behaviors such as bingeing, purging, and excessive exercise. Disordered eating, on the other hand, refers to irregular eating patterns that can lead to an eating disorder diagnosis.

It is crucial to differentiate these conditions from each other and address them early for effective treatment.

As we delve deeper into the topic of eating disorders, can you provide an overview of the different types of eating disorders and their diagnostic criteria?

If we talk about the types of eating disorders, there are three most common eating disorders: binge eating disorder, anorexia nervosa, and bulimia nervosa.

Anorexia is defined by intense fear of weight gain, severe food restriction, and distorted body image. Binge eating disorder involves recurrent binge eating and feelings of shame, guilt, and distress. Bulimia involves binge-purge cycles, distorted body image, and purging behaviors. All are serious mental illnesses that require prompt treatment.

What contributes to the development of these disorders?

Our food habits and the way we educate and communicate about nutrition and weight to both children and adults can contribute to these complex issues. It’s crucial to understand that eating disorders are not simply passed down through genetics, but rather a result of a combination of several factors, including an individual’s temperament, family history of eating disorders, chemical imbalances related to hunger, appetite and satisfaction, societal pressure to conform to specific body standards, exposure to negative body talk, influence of social media, societal beauty ideals, and the normalization of restrictive diets. Additionally, psychological factors such as childhood experiences, social comparison, traumatic events, poor emotional expression, depression, and inadequate coping mechanisms also play a role in the formation of eating disorders.

Eating disorders not only affect an individual’s physical health, but also their mental well-being. As a clinical dietician, what are some of the most common physical and mental health effects, you have observed in your clients with eating disorders?

As a clinical dietician, I have seen the devastating effects of eating disorders on both the physical and mental health of my clients. Some of the most common physical effects I have observed include severe weight loss, malnutrition, fatigue, heart problems, electrolyte imbalances, digestive problems, and menstrual irregularities.

Mentally, eating disorders can lead to depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, obsession with weight and body image, distorted body image, social isolation, and a preoccupation with food and weight. In severe cases, eating disorders can lead to other mental health problems such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

It’s important to understand that eating disorders are not just a simple issue of food and weight, but rather a complex interplay of physical, mental, and emotional factors that require a multi-disciplinary approach to treatment. I strongly encourage anyone who is struggling with an eating disorder to seek professional help from a dietician, therapist, and other mental health professionals to address all aspects of their condition and achieve long-term recovery.

It is crucial for our readers to gain a deeper understanding of not just the symptoms, but also the underlying causes and risk factors that contribute to their development. From your professional perspective, please shed some light on the various factors that play a role in the onset of eating disorders and how they typically develop over time?

The development of an eating disorder is influenced by a combination of genetic, environmental, psychological, and cultural factors.

Genetics can play a role in an individual’s susceptibility to an eating disorder, however, it is important to note that genetics alone do not cause eating disorders. Family history of eating disorders, personality traits such as perfectionism and impulsivity, and biological factors such as brain chemistry and hormonal imbalances can increase the risk of developing an eating disorder.

Cultural and societal factors, such as the pressure to conform to a certain body type, negative body talk, and the promotion of diet culture and unrealistic beauty standards, can also contribute to the development of an eating disorder.

Environmental factors, such as childhood experiences, traumatic events, stress, and lack of healthy coping mechanisms can also increase the risk of developing an eating disorder.

Psychological factors, such as anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and a history of emotional, physical, or sexual abuse, can also play a role in the development of eating disorders.

It is important to understand that the onset and progression of eating disorders can vary greatly among individuals, and that these disorders can develop over a period of time and can become deeply ingrained in an individual’s life, making recovery a complex and challenging process.

What are the most pervasive misconceptions about eating disorders that you have come across in your practice?

I have encountered several pervasive misconceptions about eating disorders in my practice. Some of the most common ones include:

Eating disorders only affect young, thin, and wealthy individuals – Eating disorders can affect individuals of any age, gender, race, or socioeconomic status.

Eating disorders are a choice – Eating disorders are complex conditions that stem from a combination of biological, psychological, and environmental factors and are not simply a matter of choice.

Only women can suffer from eating disorders – Men can also develop eating disorders and are often underdiagnosed due to stigma and cultural norms surrounding masculinity and body image.

Eating disorders are a phase or a trend – Eating disorders are serious, life-threatening illnesses that require professional help and support for recovery.

Eating disorders can be easily cured with willpower – Eating disorders require a multi-disciplinary approach, including therapy, nutrition counseling, and medical intervention, to effectively treat and manage the symptoms and underlying causes.

Only people who are underweight have an eating disorder – Eating disorders can manifest in individuals with a normal or above-normal body weight, and can involve disordered eating behaviors such as bingeing and purging.

Eating disorders are not real mental illnesses – Eating disorders are recognized as serious and debilitating mental health conditions that require proper diagnosis and treatment.

To better support individuals who are struggling with these conditions and their loved ones, it is crucial that we work to dispel common misconceptions. With that in mind, I would like to ask you, what are some of the most effective strategies for dispelling misconceptions about eating disorders, recovery and educating people?

Some of the most effective strategies for dispelling misconceptions about eating disorders and promoting education can include:

Providing accurate information: This involves correcting false information and providing evidence-based information about the nature, causes, and treatment of eating disorders.

Encouraging open communication: Encouraging open and honest conversations about eating disorders can help to reduce stigma and promote a better understanding of the conditions.

Highlighting the complexity of eating disorders: Eating disorders are complex conditions that are influenced by a variety of factors, including genetics, biochemistry, psychology, and social influences. By emphasizing the complexity of these conditions, it is possible to dispel the idea that they are simply a result of a lack of willpower or a personal weakness.

Promoting a recovery-oriented approach: A recovery-oriented approach focuses on helping individuals with eating disorders achieve and maintain physical, mental, and emotional well-being. By emphasizing the importance of this approach, it is possible to dispel the idea that eating disorders are a hopeless or incurable condition.

Engaging with communities: Building partnerships with schools, organizations, and community groups can help to spread awareness and promote education about eating disorders. This can also help to promote early detection and intervention, which is crucial for successful recovery.

Empowering individuals with personal stories: Personal stories from individuals who have experienced eating disorders and recovered can help to dispel misconceptions and provide hope for those who are struggling with these conditions.

As a society, we often hold certain ideals and expectations when it comes to body image and food. How do you as a dietician see these societal and cultural influences perpetuating harmful patterns of disordered eating and body image issues? And what steps can dieticians take to challenge and change these cultural narratives?

Societal and cultural influences can have a strong impact on an individual’s perception of their body and relationship with food. The promotion of unrealistic beauty standards and “ideal” body types can lead to body dissatisfaction and disordered eating behaviors. Additionally, cultural attitudes surrounding food and weight can contribute to the development of negative thoughts and behaviors towards food and eating.

To challenge and change these cultural narratives, dietitians can educate clients on the importance of body positivity and a healthy relationship with food. They can also help individuals understand that there is no one “perfect” body type and that diversity should be celebrated. In their practice, dietitians can focus on promoting intuitive eating, encouraging individuals to listen to their bodies’ hunger and fullness cues, and de-emphasizing the use of weight as a measure of health. Additionally, dietitians can also work to dismantle weight stigma and promote body diversity by using inclusive language and avoiding language that reinforces harmful cultural messages.

In light of the constant bombardment of unrealistic beauty standards and negative messages about body image all around us, how can we build a healthy relationship with food and our bodies and educate ourselves on the importance of self-acceptance and self-care in the face of societal pressure to conform?

To build a healthy relationship with food and our bodies, it is important to practice self-compassion and focus on health rather than appearance. Reframe negative thoughts about your body, surround yourself with positive influences, and prioritize nourishing foods and physical activity for overall well-being. Tune out external beauty standards and focus on what makes you feel good, both physically and emotionally. In case negative body image affects your quality of life, seek support from loved ones or a mental health professional. Remember that everyone is unique and deserving of love and respect, regardless of shape or size, and by shifting the focus to self-care and wellness, a healthier relationship with food and the body can be established.

Nutritional management is a crucial aspect of the treatment of eating disorders. As a dietician, what specific techniques and strategies do you use to address and improve the nutritional status of your clients with eating disorders, and how do you monitor their progress towards achieving and maintaining healthy weight and nutritional status during their recovery process?

As a dietician specializing in eating disorders, I use a multi-disciplinary approach to help improve the nutritional status of my clients. This includes conducting a thorough evaluation of their dietary intake and medical history, developing a balanced meal plan, encouraging a gradual increase in caloric intake, teaching mindfulness techniques, educating on nutritional requirements, regularly monitoring progress, and collaborating with other health professionals. My goal is to support my clients in achieving and maintaining a healthy weight and positive relationship with food while addressing their unique nutritional needs. By combining a focus on physical health with emotional well-being, I aim to provide a comprehensive approach to their recovery journey.

What strategies do you use to help clients understand and challenge the ‘eating disorder mindset’, which often includes a preoccupation with controlling eating, body weight and shape, and how do you help clients develop a more balanced and healthier mindset in their approach to food, nutrition, and self-image in the context of their recovery from an eating disorder?

As a dietician, I help clients recover from eating disorders by using a combination of strategies aimed at challenging the ‘eating disorder mindset’ and promoting a more balanced and healthy approach to food, nutrition, and self-image. These strategies include cognitive-behavioral therapy techniques to challenge negative thoughts, mindfulness practices to manage stress and emotional eating, intuitive eating principles to develop a positive relationship with food, education on nutrition and body image to challenge unrealistic standards, and regular monitoring and support to maintain progress. Through these techniques, I aim to empower clients to develop a healthier mindset and make lasting changes in their approach to food, nutrition, and self-image during their recovery from an eating disorder.

Access to adequate and timely treatment for eating disorders can be a significant challenge for many individuals. According to you what are the key barriers to treatment and how do these barriers affect the individuals seeking help in terms of their physical, emotional, and psychological well-being? How can we overcome these barriers and provide accessible care?

Access to adequate and timely treatment for eating disorders is a major challenge faced by many individuals, resulting from a combination of factors such as lack of awareness, stigma, cost, and limited access to specialized treatment providers. These barriers can have devastating impacts on physical, emotional, and psychological well-being, leaving individuals struggling with eating disorders without the support they need to recover. To overcome these barriers, it is crucial to raise public awareness and understanding about the severity of eating disorders, reduce stigma associated with seeking help, advocate for better insurance coverage, and increase access to specialized treatment providers, particularly in underserved areas. By doing so, we can empower individuals with eating disorders to access the care they need and achieve optimal physical, emotional, and psychological well-being on their journey to recovery.


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