Marg Oaten’s daughter was a happy, healthy girl who loved table tennis and drama until at the age of 10 she developed anorexia. Twelve years on she is still fighting the illness, which almost killed her.
“I was absolutely distraught,” said Oaten, 54. “It is the worst thing in the world to know your daughter might die.”
At her darkest point, Oaten said her daughter existed on five flakes of cereal a day, washed down with a mouthful of water.
Children as young as seven can suffer from eating disorders. The illness also afflicts older women as well as men and boys, though it is most common in young women, health experts say.
In Britain, about five to ten percent of women aged 14 to 24 suffer from some form of eating disorder. The ratio falls to 1 percent for the whole female population, said Professor Janet Treasure, head of the eating disorders service and research unit at King’s College London.
Bulimia nervosa, when a person binges and vomits, is two to five times more common than anorexia nervosa, when someone restricts their intake of food and drink, she said.
Both psychiatric disorders, can be fatal — two models from Latin America died this year after becoming anorexic — or cause permanent health defects such as brittle bones and infertility.
For Oaten’s daughter, who wanted to remain anonymous, the fear of changes to her body as she approached adolescence coupled with bullying at school drove her to stop eating.
Her weight plunged and she ended up in hospital where she was treated as an inpatient and eventually allowed home. Two years later, however, she developed bulimia.
Now, at 22, she has had surgery for a prolapsed bowel and still makes herself sick, but she is trying to get better, said Oaten, who has used her experience with eating disorders to set up a support group in Hull, northern England, to help others.
Children as young as 7
Doctor Jon Goldin, a consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children in London, said: “We see children here as young as seven or eight with anorexia but that is very rare.”
Asked why youngsters develop a problem with food so early on, he said: “One contributing factor is that maybe children are under more pressure now than they were 10 or 20 years ago and somehow childhood is being prematurely shortened.”
A perception in society that thin is glamorous, compounded by images of waif-like celebrities in magazines, is another of the many factors that triggers anorexia and bulimia.
But far from being sexy, the reality of the illness is lonely and desperate.
Victims say they secretly starve their bodies or binge and then vomit until there is nothing left but the taste of stomach acid on their lips. They often exercise obsessively and feel fat even when grossly underweight.
“I hated the hunger and the cold and the tiredness, but the feeling of being able to control what I ate was brilliant,” said Rebecca Slack, now 23, who became anorexic when she was 15 and dropped to five stone (32 kilograms).
Age no barrier
Young people are not the only ones at risk.
Alison Alden, a married mother of three from southeast England, said starvation became a way of life when she was 43, prompted by a desire to lose weight at a time when she had been under pressure running a guest house.
Over three years, she dropped from 8 stone 7 (55 kilograms) to less than 6 stone (38 kilograms), but felt: “This couldn’t be anorexia because I had never been ill in that way and I was too old.”
Alden decided to get help for the sake of her family or she would die. She went to a doctor who diagnosed her as having anorexia fuelled by depression. He prescribed her some anti-depressants that helped strengthen her resolve to recover.
For most sufferers, the first port of call is the doctor, who may refer him or her to an eating disorder unit at a hospital as an outpatient to receive advice on eating healthily as well as counseling to understand why the problem started.
There is no straight answer, but research has uncovered a likely genetic aspect that triggers the disorder when coupled with factors such as the onset of puberty, pressure from society to achieve, bullying and a low self-esteem, Treasure said.
Among a range of warning signs is an obsessive interest in dieting and a reluctance to eat around others, said Goldin.
It may take several years, but eating disorders can be cured and the faster they are spotted the greater the chance of recovery for people of all ages, the two experts said.
“It’s all about having a reason to get better and building strategies to cope,” said Alden, now 47, who has written a book , “Sleeping Dragons and Poppy Seeds,” about her struggle.