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Caroline Nokes MP: Eating disorders can affect anyone

Eating disorders are not just about food, writes Caroline Nokes MP, to highlight Eating Disorders Awareness Week.

As chair of the All Party Group on Body Image it might be expected that I would have an interest in eating disorders, but what has struck me over the last twelve months is how involved I have become in the personal aspects of eating disorders, the impact on individuals and families, and the desperate need to improve understanding and awareness of this wide range of conditions.

All too often anorexia nervosa (to name just one) is portrayed as a condition of middle class, teenage girls, who “just need to get a grip of their eating habits”. Yes, that is one of the quotes I have heard from the ignorant and unaware, but it could not be further from the reality. Eating disorders can affect anyone, at any time, it is not exclusively an issue for women, although I will concede the majority of sufferers are female. However, the fastest growing group of sufferers are young men, who in the 21st Century are under just as much pressure as women to achieve the body ideal we see in magazines.

Neither is it a disease only of the young, I have met many sufferers who are well into their 30s and 40s, and from work with b-eat, Anorexia and Bulimia Care and others, I know there are sufferers in their 60s and 70s living with these horrendous conditions.

Eating disorders are not just about food, they are about mental well-being, poor self-esteem, control, fear, stress, and it is to do a disservice to the many sufferers, the outstanding charities and the experts and professionals in this field to lightly dismiss the conditions, their severity and their complexity. The vast majority of parliamentarians will have heard of anorexia and bulimia, but what about obsessive exercising, selective eating disorders where the sufferer will only eat a very few foods and food neophobia, which is a fear of trying new foods? Just because some of these conditions are little known and understand, does not make them any less serious or any easier to treat and hopefully cure.

I have been privileged to visit April House in Southampton, a specialist unit treating adult sufferers from eating disorders, meet and discuss the conditions and problems associated with treatment with a wide range of experts, but for me, most importantly I have met sufferers, their families and those who have recovered. All of their stories are heart rending, inspiring, desperate and encouraging in equal measure. The debate in Westminster Hall is not just a chance to highlight Eating Disorders Awareness Week, it is an opportunity to air their stories, and work to make sure these conditions are recognised for their severity.