‘My over-exercising damaged my brain and I could have died in my sleep’

Henry Clifford
Henry Clifford's exercising started off as a desire to be fitter and stronger, but it soon began to disrupt his life - Jeff Gilbert

Henry Clifford was a 19-year-old undergraduate in his first year at university when he found himself lying flat on the floor of a gym – unable to move – paralysed by weeks of intense exercise combined with dangerous under-eating.

“I had been training for a mixed martial arts fight,” he says. “I had been trying to shed weight and build muscle intensively. I should have taken my collapse as a warning sign that I was overdoing things but I chose to ignore it and didn’t tell anyone.

“I took part in the fight a few days later and won. But afterwards when I was examined by the medic he noticed my eyes weren’t working normally. He took me to hospital where a doctor told me that the spike in blood pressure had damaged my brain and I could have died in my sleep. That was the point I realised I had a problem with diet and exercise. It had started off as a desire to be fitter and stronger but it had become something that totally disrupted my life,” says Henry.

When he was 19, Henry Clifford collapsed as a result of weeks of intense exercise combined with dangerous under-eating
When he was 19, Henry Clifford collapsed as a result of weeks of intense exercise combined with dangerous under-eating

He took it as a wake-up call, undertaking therapy and meditation to take back control of his eating. Today, he maintains a healthy weight and enjoys a successful career as a film producer in London. “I’ve got to the stage where I can go out with my girlfriend and eat pizza without thinking twice,” he says.

Others are not so lucky. Henry’s story has parallels with that of Ed Bilbey, the amateur boxer from Derbyshire who died in 2017, moments after winning a fight for which he had trained with a similar intensity. His mother, Michelle, told The Telegraph how he had over-exercised while starving himself to the extent that his shorts would fall off while he was running.

For a growing number of young men in the UK, this is what modern eating disorders look like. They are often cloaked behind the seemingly healthy pursuit of sporting success and physical excellence. But the cult of perfectionism is driving thousands of young men towards a dangerous obsession with nutrition, exercise and control that, in fact, damages their health and can endanger their lives.

Thanks to the charity Beat Eating Disorders UK , this week has been designated as Eating Disorder Awareness Week (February 26-March 4). Beat says 1.25 million people are suffering from an eating disorder in the UK. Of those, 25 per cent are thought to be men. Since 2016, hospital admissions of boys and young men with eating disorders have rocketed 128 per cent. They are traditionally thought of as a spectrum of illnesses that afflict young women, but the data shows a much more diverse range of people suffering from eating disorders.

“We think that there is a huge issue with under-reporting among men who have eating disorders,” says Tom Quinn, director of external affairs at Beat Eating Disorders UK. “We believe this is because it is still perceived as a female condition. There is a stigma that puts men off coming forward for help.”

Jenny Langley’s son Joe was 11 when she first noticed him losing a significant amount of weight. “He went through a growth spurt as many boys do at that age, which left him with an energy deficit – he wasn’t eating enough calories to keep up with the growth of his body,” she says. Soon the extent of Joe’s weight loss became impossible to ignore. “We took him to the GP for various tests and they told us nothing was wrong and made me feel as if I was just a fussing mum.” Jenny says that he seemed to be eating the same amount as he ever did and no less than his siblings or friends. Eventually, he became too weak to attend school or even climb the stairs. Jenny took him to accident and emergency where he was put on a drip and, eventually, diagnosed as anorexic.

“Joe was a committed sportsman and a talented footballer,” says Jenny. “So he was striving for excellence to be the best football player, the best cross country runner, the best swimmer. And it just tipped over into burnout, basically.

“He was secretly exercising in his room to an extreme extent. And then he got the obsessive compulsive thoughts that come with starvation. It was terrifying for the whole family. We thought he might die.”

Eventually, Joe recovered after being admitted to residential rehab and undertaking cognitive behavioural therapy. Today, he is in his 30s and has a successful career. Jenny gave up her job as a stockbroker to help him through his rehabilitation and has since become a professional carer and writer on the subject of eating disorders among boys. “As a parent, it’s easy to feel guilty about the role you might have played in your child’s problems,” she says. “But to a large extent, these disorders are down to genetic preconditioning. Joe’s illness had a huge impact on our entire family and my own mental health suffered badly. I now advise parents in similar positions to look after themselves and take time out to rest.”

Jenny says it was difficult to spot the signs of Joe’s disorder in the early stages because he seemed so healthy. “I now realise that he was being increasingly secretive and withdrawn,” she says. “These are the signs that I would advise any parents to look out for. Being picky about food, perhaps exercising every single day and being unable to consider a break. These things can be signals of a deeper problem.”

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual Of Mental Disorders, men and boys represent 20 per cent of patients presenting with anorexia, 40 per cent of those presenting with bulimia and 50 per cent of those presenting with binge eating disorder.

“There are no clear distinctions between how men and women experience eating disorders, though there is some evidence to suggest that some men might be more like ly to struggle with over-exercising as part of their eating disorder, for instance, becoming distressed when they can’t go to the gym,” says Quinn. “Others might experience binge eating or purging [making yourself sick].”

Sam Thomas first started to experience “disordered eating patterns” (problematic eating habits that are not severe enough to receive a clinical diagnosis but are often warning signs of potentially bigger problems) when he was at school in the late 1990s. “I experienced severe homophobic bullying throughout my school years and would hide away in the toilets to comfort eat from my lunchbox,” he says.

Sam Thomas first began to experience disordered eating patterns during his school years
Sam Thomas first began to experience disordered eating patterns during his school years

“Then, as I got older, this morphed into binge eating and then purging. Back then, there was zero discussion of male eating disorders and I didn’t identify as having one. I had low self-esteem and almost saw the bingeing and purging as a pain I deserved.

“I went to the doctor and got referred to mental health services. But I was only 16 so I needed parent approval to receive further treatment. My mum just wasn’t interested in referring me for mental health support. She didn’t understand that I needed it. Back then, my problems just weren’t recognisable to most people.”

By the time he was 21, Sam had moved from Liverpool to Brighton and began a new life as a writer and campaigner. With renewed self-confidence, he was able to stop the pattern of binge eating and purging – but in his mid-20s he developed an alcohol problem that eventually required residential rehab. “It was therapy around my drinking that helped me to understand that it was all a response to trauma stretching back to childhood bullying. I realised that the binge eating and purging had been a symptom of the same illness as the drinking.”

Sam was eventually able to break the cycle of binge eating and purging after realising it stemmed from childhood trauma
Sam was eventually able to break the cycle of binge eating and purging after realising it stemmed from childhood trauma

It is important to recognise all eating disorders in this way, says Quinn. “Eating disorders are mental illnesses, not physical conditions, so it’s important to look out for psychological signs. For instance, you may notice that a friend or family member seems stressed during mealtimes, disappears to the bathroom after eating or seems more distracted than usual. Not every person with an eating disorder experiences weight gain or loss which is why focusing on the emotional signs is so important,” he says.

According to Prof Janet Treasure, director of the Eating Disorder Unit and professor of psychiatry at the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London, there are some gender differences in how these disorders manifest. “Females tend to focus on weight loss and becoming smaller,” she says. “One physical symptom in females with anorexia is loss of periods. Men tend to focus on increasing lean muscularity. A common physical symptom is loss of morning erections.”

Danny Gray developed body dysmorphia in his teens after being bullied about his appearance at school, where he was mocked for having ears that stuck out. He became so fixated on the issue that his mum had his ears pinned back when he was 12 – a procedure Danny chose to repeat when he was 19. “It sparked a lifelong obsession with my appearance which resulted in a breakdown when I was 30,” he says.

Danny Gray: 'People just don't understand that men can suffer these conditions too'
Danny Gray: 'People just don't understand that men can suffer these conditions too'

“It was a difficult condition for people around me to understand. Friends and family would say, ‘Don’t worry about it, you always look great’. But that was no help to me at all at the time.

“My self-consciousness was obsessive and went beyond my ears; it applied to every element of my appearance. It made it hard to socialise. Weight is just one of the things I was anxious about. To this day, I never eat breakfast, for example.

“There were underlying problems that I have learned to manage through opening up to people and seeking professional help. But I think it’s just as important to educate the people around someone with an eating disorder. People just don’t understand that men can suffer these conditions too.”

As a child, Danny was mocked for having ears that stuck out
As a child, Danny was mocked for having ears that stuck out

Danny launched the online therapy platform Jaaq, which offers free expert advice and information on an array of mental health conditions. The eating disorders advice is delivered by Treasure. “With young men and boys, it’s harder to spot changes at first,” she says. “But isolation, withdrawing from their peer groups and ceasing to enjoy their usual hobbies are the signs concerned parents should be looking out for.”

And what should concerned parents do if they are worried their son has a problem? “Never go straight in and accuse them of having an eating disorder,” stresses Treasure. “This tends to make people defensive and hostile. It’s better to make small observations such as: ‘I’ve noticed you are spending less time with your friends recently, why is that?’ It can be hard for a parent to reach an agreement with their child that there is something wrong, so often seeking outside help from an expert is better. Talking therapies have been proven to be very effective in treating these illnesses.”

Catching it early

Estimates suggest that 46 per cent of people will fully recover from eating disorders, 34 per cent improve partially (learning to manage the illness) and 20 per cent will develop chronic anorexia nervosa. The prognosis is best in young people with a short illness duration – 60 per cent of adolescents with anorexia make a full recovery if they receive early specialist treatment. The issue among young men is that they are less likely than females to seek that treatment at an early stage.

A 2012 study in the International Journal Of Eating Disorders found that there was no difference in mortality rates between men and women with anorexia, but that male patients tended to die sooner after hospitalisation because they had taken longer to seek treatment, by which time their symptoms were more severe.

Abundant resources

While eating disorders are serious, full recovery can be made from even the most extreme cases. There are a huge number of resources available for parents and sufferers – and millions of people, just like Henry, who have overcome their illness to live happy and fulfilling lives. “I felt like controlling my physicality was the only way I could be safe and in control of my life,” he says today.

“It took a series of setbacks and ultimately a crisis point for me to understand I was putting myself in danger and needed to make a change. I realised that I wasn’t treating myself with the same kindness I would have treated a friend. To anyone else suffering from a similar illness I would say that I found it isn’t necessary and, ultimately, life is worth living.”

Jenny advises concerned parents to adopt a subtle but determined approach towards their sons. “Gently notice changes in behaviour around food, weight, shape, mood and exercise without any hint of criticism or judgement,” she says. “Write everything down. Get a physical checkup with a GP as soon as possible to give a base level of observations. Contact eating disorder charities and seek help at the earliest possible stage.

“Most importantly of all, don’t give up if or when the GP says your son is not sick enough.”

If you’re worried about your own or someone else’s health, you can contact Beat, the UK’s eating disorder charity, on 0808 801 0677 or beateatingdisorders.org.uk


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