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Caroline Nokes: Busting the myths about eating disorders

Nokes CarolineCaroline Nokes is Member of Parliament for Romsey and Southampton North.  Follow Caroline on Twitter.

All too often the stereotypes associated with eating disorders (in all their various guises) colour the understanding of us all, and the assumption that sufferers are teenage girls who just need to “get a grip” of their eating has been repeated to me many times over the course of the last few weeks.

The reality could not be further from the truth, eating disorders do not just affect teenage girls, young men are the fastest growing group of sufferers.  They can strike at any age, and I have met sufferers of my age, and indeed those in their 50s and 60s who are still living with and managing their conditions.  And you cannot be “cured” of any of the several eating disorders just by getting a grip of your eating.  These are serious mental conditions, which can have devastating physical impacts upon the sufferer, and they are the most lethal of any mental illness.

In the UK there are 1.6 million people affected by eating disorders, and these range from the ones most will have heard of, anorexia and bulimia nervosa, to the far more obscure, such as Selective Eating Disorder, Food Neophobia and obsessive over-exercising.  Today’s debate in Westminster Hall is timed to coincide with Eating Disorder Awareness Week, which runs from the 17th – 24th February, and seeks to highlight the complexities of these conditions, and improve the understanding of parliamentarians.

I vividly recall the way various debates on mental illness have been welcomed in the House recently, and I hope this debate can address some of the misconceptions there are regarding this very serious and all too frequently tragic form of mental illness.

In Southampton there is a fantastic unit specialising in eating disorders, April House.  Although it is outside my constituency, it provides assistance to a number of patients from across the wider area, and when I visited last year some of the service users were my constituents.  Their personal stories, and struggles with eating disorders were incredibly moving and powerful, and I have been stunned by the success in treatment of some, and their subsequent efforts to both raise public awareness and money to support treatment units and charities.  I have to take my hat off to my constituent Becky, who is sky diving to raise money for April House, and the students from Oxford University who are rowing from Oxford to London in the summer to raise money for one of the leading eating disorder awareness charities B-Eat.  They are proof that it is possible to recover from eating disorders and lead a fulfilling and healthy life.

But not all stories are as positive, and I am painfully aware that the recovery rates are not as good as I would wish, that treatment varies massively across the country, and I have met many sufferers who are coping with the condition into their later years.   I have also met some inspiring male sufferers, who have overcome their compulsion to run the equivalent of a marathon every day, or are still trying to overcome a condition called Food Neophobia, where they have a fear of even trying new food.  To most that will appear totally incomprehensible, but to the 1.6 million affected by this sort of disorder it is the reality of their every day battle.

Of course, an addiction to the way in which you control your food is unlike any other addiction.  Food is necessary to live, it has to be faced three times a day, every day.  There is no way food can be avoided in the same way a drug addict, an alcoholic or a smoker might seek to develop coping strategies which remove them from their particular addiction.  In order to live you have to eat, and for those with an eating disorder facing up to that is the hardest challenge of all.

I know there are many members who will have heard similar stories from their constituents, who may have had personal experience, and who will want to help raise awareness of these conditions.  There are also too many people both within Parliament and outside who do not know enough, and in holding this debate I hope we can address that knowledge deficit and start to break down some of the misconceptions which surround eating disorders.

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