Picture the scene, you wake up in the morning and go to bed at night with feelings of guilt and utter despondency, you rarely feel happy, in fact a lot of the time you simply don’t feel anything other than empty and hollow. For those that experience a healthy relationship with food, the notion of using it as a way of controlling emotions and perhaps even venting frustrations seems shocking. To someone with a dietary obsession, food control becomes the central axis that their entire lives revolve around.

In recent years, much focus has been placed on the escalating number of people suffering from eating disorders. Millions of men and women are simply fixated by calories, bodyweight and image; some of the underlying reasons for the development of unhealthy eating habits are sinister and can be traced back to the front pages of our magazines or the entertainment channels on television.

The scary stats

Approximately 1.5 million people are suffering from an eating disorder in the UK. It is difficult to put a human face on these sobering statistics but just remember the two beautiful young models Carolina Reston and Luisel Ramos, who died recently due to a desperate quest to be thin.

Almost every family in this country is touched in some way by the devastating effects of an eating disorder, watching a loved one literally mutilating their body is a cruel stab to the heart, that no magical pill or stern lecture can rectify. Once a person with anorexia nervosa or bulimia has fallen into the black cycle of binging and starving, the choice between surviving or not becomes theirs and no one can help them to get better unless they want to and even then the eating disorder can still win the battle of wills.

Victoria Beckham, the Olsen twins, Keira Knightley and Lindsay Lohan are just a small number of famous women gracing our screens on a regular basis. These women have BMI’s that are considered underweight; some are even entering the dangerously thin category. Look in a shop window at the nicely dressed mannequins and you will see an eerie resemblance between skinny celebrities and these fake dolls. Yet many women find themselves aspiring to mould their shapes into those of their idols. This initial aspiration to achieve a leaner figure can all too often spiral into an eating disorder.

Don’t be under the misconception that eating disorders are always caused by a need to look thinner and attractive in obscenely tiny sized clothes, the reason is not always so simple.

Although eating disorders are on the increase, we still know precious little about their causes. Anyone can suffer from an eating disorder; you don’t need to be overweight, fashion conscious or easily influenced. Recent research has found that 1 in 5 athletes are suffering from anorexia or bulimia. Surely the sports men and women amongst us should be the epitome of health and nutritional adequacy! Perhaps their competitive nature at sports filters through to their need to be the thinnest, most disciplined eater also.

Parents, siblings, friends and partners are not to blame for eating disorders. No evidence shows a significant difference in the families of anorexics compared with other families. There are probably several factors at work including genetics, low self esteem, cultural and social factors.

For many people with an eating disorder, there comes a point when their lives become unmanageable and they seek help by themselves. Until they reach this point, there is little that the people close to them can do only support them as much as they can. They can’t be forced into a decision to seek help. It’s something they need to decide for themselves, otherwise recovery is unlikely.

Before talking to someone who you suspect is suffering from an eating disorder, it’s best to inform yourself about the condition and approach them carefully. Be supportive and try not to criticise – they will already be feeling stressed, so you need to let them know as gently as possible that you only want to help. Below are some details of organisations that can help.

The road to recovery from an eating disorder is long and full of obstacles. After 5 years about 50% will recover but they are never really cured. There doesn't seem to be any quick or easy treatments. An eating disorder is in some ways comparable to an addiction, the preoccupation with food will often remain ensconced in a person’s mind forever.

If you or anyone close to you suffers from an eating disorder, there are numerous organisations that can help, such as the Eating Disorders Association in the UK (www.eatingdisorders.ie). Other organisations such as Bodywhys in Ireland (www.bodywhys.ie) and the National Centre for Eating Disorders in the UK (www.eating-disorders.org.uk) can also help.