Living With... Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are a serious mental illness affecting over 1.6 million people in the UK . There has been an increase in cases with both women and men being affected by the disorder, which is responsible for more loss of life than any other form of psychological illness.

Eating disorders are characterised by an abnormal attitude towards food that causes someone to change their eating habits and behaviour.

A person with an eating disorder may focus excessively on their weight and shape, leading them to make unhealthy choices about food with damaging results to their health.

Types of eating disorders

According to NHS Choices, eating disorders include a range of conditions that can affect someone physically, psychologically (mentally) and socially (their ability to interact with others). The most common eating disorders are:

  • anorexia nervosa, when someone tries to keep their weight as low as possible, for example by starving themselves or exercising excessively
  • bulimia, when someone tries to control their weight by binge eating and then deliberately being sick or using laxatives (medication to help empty their bowels)
  • binge eating, when someone feels compelled to overeat

Eating disorders that do not fit with the above definitions may be described as:

  • atypical eating disorders
  • eating disorders not otherwise specified

Owen’s story

Owen is in his early thirties, lives in the Greater Manchester area and has a full time, professional job. Owen has been through the eating disorder service at GMMH and wanted to talk about his journey in battling the illness.

When did you first start experiencing difficulties around eating?

“I first thought that I might have problems with my eating when I was aged 24, but to be honest looking back now I probably had issues regarding eating two or three years earlier and even as far back as a teenager, but at the time I did not realise it. In my case I experienced problems with my eating due to anorexia caused by excessive exercise, especially after eating.”

Owen enjoyed running and wanted to get fitter and frequently went to the gym, burning around 1600 calories a day. Yet eating smaller portions and lower calorie foods like fruit, vegetables and salad, consequently his weight plummeted and he found exercising extremely difficult.

What are the signs/side effects?

“What eventually brought it to my attention was the fact that my weight had dropped so low, I had a lack of energy, felt cold all the time, my fingers even turned blue and my mind was just so preoccupied with food that I could not concentrate or accomplish simple tasks, even at work. I became irritable with my family, saw less of my friends, becoming more isolated and occupied with controlling my eating and exercise.”

Other signs and symptoms included checking his weight almost daily with an intense fear of gaining weight, having a distorted image of his body, carrying out strict rituals before eating and cutting out all fats from his diet.

What treatment do you have?

“Once I realised that I had a problem with my eating I eventually got referred to the Eating Disorder Service in Salford. For the first year and a half I underwent Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) with a Clinical Psychologist who was really understanding and easy to talk to.

This helped me talk about my concerns and fears associated with eating and how to deal with the mental thoughts and issues that I had, looking at the deep rooted causes. They helped me to regain weight slowly and a dietician looked at what I was eating (I kept a food diary), made suggestions on what to eat and how to maintain a normal balanced diet.”

What is your advice to other people going through a similar experience?

“My advice to anybody who thinks they have problems with their eating is don’t feel ashamed, you may feel scarred but you are not alone and help can be found. There is a lot of pressure on people as regards to what we are told to eat and how much exercise we should do, making it easy to get quite obsessive about your eating. Don’t worry and think that only women are affected and not men too, it can happen to anyone at any age. In my experience it came about through striving to get fitter.”

Does the support from the GMMH experts really make a difference?

“Yes the help I received was great. If it wasn’t for that initial help I don’t know how much further I would have gone without breaking down at the gym. You get expert advice and you are not forced to do anything you don’t want to.

“The staff are there to help you address your problems, giving you choices at every step. They help reassure you, give you confidence and you know in the back of your mind that somebody is always there to help and listen should you need it.”

Did you know where to go for help?

“At first it was difficult to get a referral from my GP, but eventually after looking on the internet and talking to people over the telephone I was eventually put in touch with the Eating Disorder Service in Salford.”

Should more be done?

“Unfortunately yes, especially with men like myself who you do not expect to suffer from eating disorders. Greater awareness is needed, along with straightforward ways to assist and encourage people to get help, helping people feel less embarrassed and anxious about eating.”

Due to the sensitivity of the subject matter and person, ‘Owen’ is a pseudonym.

Published data from Beat (Eating Disorders Association UK)