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Eating disorders: NHS expert discusses symptoms and advice

Colin Jackson has reached the apex of his sporting career more than once, having been crowned world champion twice at 110 metres hurdles. Colin is now competing for another title in ITV’s Dancing on Ice. The demands of elite athleticism have been a double-edged sword for Colin over the years.

The former Olympian developed an eating disorder while training for the Olympics.

Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, he said: “I suffered bulimia and anorexia when I was training for the Olympics – I felt like I was overweight and eating too much.

“I had a job to do – and it was to run as fast as I could and I convinced myself that I had to be lighter to do it.”

The athlete would severely restrict his daily calorie count, often forgoing a meal for days, he revealed.

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Colin admitted the drive to succeed distracted him from the harm he was causing.

But with the clarity that distance affords, the reality of his eating disorder has now sunk in, he said.

“My appearance didn’t come into it, I never thought about it, it was more from a functional aspect. I do look back on photos now and see how small I was.”

Fortunately, Colin has overcome his eating disorder – his shift in mindset driven by retirement from professional sport.

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What is an eating disorder?

An eating disorder is when you have an unhealthy attitude to food, which can take over your life and make you ill.

As the NHS explains, it can involve eating too much or too little, or becoming obsessed with your weight and body shape.

“Men and women of any age can get an eating disorder, but they most commonly affect young women aged 13 to 17 years old,” says the health body.

The most common eating disorders are:

  • Anorexia nervosa – when you try to keep your weight as low as possible by not eating enough food, exercising too much, or both
  • Bulimia – when you sometimes lose control and eat a lot of food in a very short amount of time (binging) and are then deliberately sick, use laxatives (medicine to help you poo), restrict what you eat, or do too much exercise to try to stop yourself gaining weight
  • Binge eating disorder (BED) – when you regularly lose control of your eating, eat large portions of food all at once until you feel uncomfortably full, and are then often upset or guilty
  • Other specified feeding or eating disorder (OSFED) – when your symptoms do not exactly match those of anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorder, but it does not mean it’s a less serious illness.

How to treat an eating disorder

There are treatments that can help and you can recover from an eating disorder.

Treatment can help you develop balanced and healthy eating patterns and help you face – and cope with – the underlying issues which may be causing your eating problem.

Talking to your GP is a great place to start.

As UK-based mental health charity Mind explains, talking about your eating problems can be scary, but if you’d like treatment and support, the first step is usually to visit your doctor (GP).

“They should be able to refer you to more specialist services,” says the charity.

There are a range of talking treatments that can help to change your relationship with eating and self-image.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) – the organisation that produces guidelines on best practice in health care – recommends the following talking treatments for eating problems:

  • Cognitive behavioural therapy for eating disorders (CBT-ED). This is an adapted form of CBT specifically for treatment of eating disorders, including anorexia. There are alternative forms of CBT for bulimia nervosa (CBT-BN) and binge eating disorder (CBT-BED). (See our pages on CBT for more information.)
  • For anorexia, you should be offered up to 40 sessions, with twice weekly sessions in the first two or three weeks.
  • For bulimia you should be offered at least 20 sessions, and may be offered twice weekly sessions at first.
  • For binge eating disorder you should be offered group CBT sessions at first. Tell your therapist or your GP if you do not find these helpful or if you would like individual therapy.
  • Family therapy. This means working through issues as a family with the support of a therapist and exploring the dynamics or situations that might have prompted the feelings underlying an eating disorder. It can help your family understand your eating problems and how they can support you. Family therapy is often offered to people with anorexia, especially younger people.

According to Mind, there are no drugs specifically for eating disorders, but you may be offered medication to treat some underlying factors (such as depression or anxiety).

“The most common medication prescribed to people experiencing bulimia or binge eating disorders is a type of antidepressant known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs),” adds the charity.

If you think you have an eating disorder, you can talk in confidence to an adviser from eating disorders charity Beat by calling their adult helpline on 0808 801 0677 or youth helpline on 0808 801 0711.

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