Eating disorders – there is a way out

Today, the Norwich-based Eating Disorders Association is being renamed Beat to send out a strong positive message to sufferers and their families and friends that help and support is available and recovery is possible.

Today, the Norwich-based Eating Disorders Association is being renamed Beat to send out a strong positive message to sufferers and their families and friends that help and support is available and recovery is possible. EMMA LEE reports.


The shocking figures speak for themselves. The Eating Disorders Association, which has its headquarters in Norwich, asked 600 young people affected by eating disorders where they went to for help and support.

As many as 92pc said they could not tell anyone they had a problem - not their teacher, a doctor or even their parents.

Their reasons for keeping their illness secret included worrying that people would think they were a “bad person”, shame, embarrassment, that it would be seen as trivial, that they were attention-seeking, or only doing it out of vanity.

Research such as that prompted the association, which began in 1989, to rethink its aims and approach.

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So today, it unveils its new name and powerful new manifesto to reassure people suffering from eating disorders that their problems matter.

It is strongly reflected in the name that has been chosen - Beat - which the charity's chief executive Susan Ringwood hopes will effectively convey the message they want to send out.

“There are some very simple things that need to change that could make a huge difference to people's lives,” she says at the charity's HQ in an office block in Prince of Wales Road.

“We realised we had to change as well. We weren't really reaching enough people. We know that we can make the most difference if people can get information and help at the earliest point. And that means young people,” she says.

Research is helping form a better understanding of the causes of eating disorders - such as anorexia nervosa, where food is extremely restricted, bulimia nervosa, where a sufferer regularly makes themselves vomit after eating, and compulsive over-eating - which in turn helps inform the best courses that treatment should take.

Part of Beat's new manifesto is to lobby the government to implement tried-and-tested guidelines for treating eating disorders across the NHS - and with an estimated 1.1 million people in the UK affected by an eating disorder, it is imperative that it is got right.

The association's website has been getting about three million hits a month and it costs £1m a year to run the charity, which gets government funding and also relies on donations.

Young people aged between 14 and 25 are at most risk of suffering from an eating disorder and it is often linked with puberty.

Although the majority of people affected are girls, boys suffer from them too - although it is more likely to manifest itself as obsessive exercising to control weight rather than extreme dieting or getting into a 'binge and purge' cycle.

Beat is keen to educate and smash preconceptions about eating disorders.

“We need to change attitudes,” says Ms Ringwood. “Some see it as very trivial and self-inflicted. People don't realise it's a serious mental illness.”

Beat has about 35 staff and a team of 300 volunteers countrywide and offers information through a phone helpline, a self-help network and its website, which is often the first point of contact.

It also supports the people caring for, and professionals treating, people with eating disorders.

“Some sufferers feel they might not be able to recover and can't imagine a life free of it. They need to believe they can be treated and get well,” says Ms Ringwood.

The launch of Beat coincides with Eating Disorders Awareness Week, which runs until Saturday and comes at a time when the fashion industry and the size zero (UK size four) phenomenon is under scrutiny again.

In August, Uruguayan model Luisel Ramos died from heart failure after she appeared in a catwalk show. She had a body mass index (BMI) of just 14.5 - any BMI under 18.5 is considered underweight.

And in November, another model, Brazilian Ana Carolina Reston, died from complications caused by anorexia nervosa. She weighed only 88lbs.

Following the deaths of the models, some of the world's fashion capitals have banned unhealthily thin girls from the catwalk. But London is not following their lead.

Ms Ringwood said: “There's a pretty thin aesthetic at the moment and I do think that designers could play a bigger part in showing a different aesthetic.

“They say their clothes only look good on very slender people, but we come in all shapes and sizes. Clothes look good on you if you are confident.”