Anorexic woman calls for BMI to be scrapped in assessing need for help

Sarah Middleton, 63, from Norwich, who has suffered with anorexia for 30 years. Photo: Neil Didsbury

Sarah Middleton has called for BMI calculations to be scrapped when offering treatment to those with eating disorders - Credit: Neil Didsbury

An anorexic Norwich woman has called for improved support for those suffering from eating disorders, with many being made to reach a certain weight before getting the treatment they need. 

Sarah Middleton, 65, was diagnosed with anorexia in her 20s and is worried young people with eating disorders will be turned down because their Body Mass Index (BMI) is deemed too high for treatment. 

She supports the findings of an inquiry by MPs calling for BMI to be scrapped, believing every person should be treated as an individual rather than a number.

Her comments come as Norwich-based charity Beat revealed demand for its helpline was up more than 300pc in the space of just a year.

Ms Middleton said: "My view is that it is definitely not right as someone who has been there and got the t-shirt. Is it fair to say to someone 'you are not light enough'? Do they want people to get so light that they are at the stage where they collapse and have to go into hospital?"

Sarah Middleton who has suffered with anorexia for 30 years. Photo: Neil Didsbury

Sarah Middleton, 65, from Norwich has lived with anorexia since her 20s - Credit: Neil Didsbury

She was speaking after the Women and Equalities Committee described BMI as "inspiring weight stigma" in which patients were being "shamed" into losing weight. 

Ms Middleton said: "I have had anorexia for just over 40 years and I am not going to recover, but my point is these kids who are getting anorexia are going to be turned down because they are not light enough.

"I consider each anorexic as a different person. They are individuals who could be tiny or 6ft but they are still treated the same."

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She has previously sought help from charities, but at one was told her BMI of 15 was too low.

The Norwich resident said: "If you are between 14 and 17 [BMI], you can't get anything. It is rigid to need a BMI of 17 when I was 15." 

The debate around the disorder has been brought back into the public fray following the death of former Big Brother contestant Nikki Grahame, a long sufferer with the illness.

Ms Middleton said past experiences of seeking help had been "brutalised and traumatising", but that services had now improved and support during her last admission had been excellent.

Sarah Middleton who has suffered with anorexia for 30 years. Photo: Neil Didsbury

Sarah Middleton pictured at her home in Norwich city centre - Credit: Neil Didsbury

Tom Quinn, Beat's director of external affairs said BMI "should never be used as the sole factor in diagnosing eating disorders, or for determining who is unwell enough to access treatment".

He believes this can lead to potentially dangerous delays, and can drive people deeper into eating disorders.

Mr Quinn added: "All healthcare professionals should have the right training to recognise an eating disorder and sensitively support their patient into treatment."

Ms Middleton, who is 5ft and weighs just over four stone, said: "BMI has never really been proven. It's not really believed by a lot of psychiatrists. It is just a way they thought was good at the time, but it really does not work.

"Living with an eating disorder is terrifying at times and it is nice to know someone is at the end of the phone that will listen."

She said she had concerns for people who were trapped with families during lockdown who did not understand the disease.

Beat has said its demand for helpline services was 302pc higher in March 2021 compared to February 2020, with 100,000 support sessions being delivered over the past year.

  • A previous version of this article suggested charity Beat had not been able to give Ms Middleton support due to her BMI being too low. This was incorrect and has been amended.