Charity Claims Eating Disorders Left Undiagnosed and Untreated

A charity has warned that eating disorders are being undiagnosed by GPs.

Eating disorders are a big problem. It’s believed 725,000 people in the UK suffer from them. Young women in their teens and early twenties tend to be the group most affected, although they are not unheard of among men and older women.

The charity BEAT surveyed 1700 patients with eating disorders.

Half said they had received care from GPs which they considered poor. Shockingly, some of these patients had been told to come back when they are thinner.

Thirty per cent said they had not been referred to a mental health service for treatment. The NHS says that those with eating disorders need to be referred for expert help immediately.

A sixth of those who were polled said they’d even changed GPs as a result of the poor treatment they had received.

Eating disorder experts say the longer these problems are left unaddressed, the higher the chance of the illnesses worsening is.

High rate of death from anorexia

The stakes are high. One study put the mortality rate for females between 15 and 24 years of age suffering from anorexia as 12 times higher than the death rate of all other causes of death.

Andrew Radford, chief executive of Beat, commented “Eating disorders are a competitive disorder - to say to someone you are not ill enough for treatment, you need to be thinner, you are basically saying go away, make yourself more ill..

“We know that early intervention and speed in referring people with eating disorders is critical if they are to make the best possible recovery.”

He added: “It takes great courage for sufferers of eating disorders to come forward and often the first person they talk to is their GP.

“Unfortunately, many of our respondents identified poor care from their doctor with many GPs not knowing what the real signs and symptoms are.”

NICE (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) have advised GPs not to tell patients to wait until they have lost more weight.

Lack of services for eating disorders

Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, RCGP chairman, argued the real problem with eating disorders was the lack of services available : “It is simply not true that GPs are not trained to identify and treat patients with eating disorders – as with all other aspects of mental health, eating disorders are included in the comprehensive GP curriculum, which all GPs must demonstrate competence of before being able to practise independently as a GP in the UK.”

 “In some cases the condition can be dealt with effectively in primary care. Some patients, for a number of reasons, might not want a referral and in these cases the GP will respect their wishes,” she said.

Orthorexia a growing problem

According to nutritionist and psychotherapist Miss Stephanie Moore of, the signs of an eating disorder are often subtle.

She commented: “Orthorexia is rapidly becoming a commonly used term within the realms of eating disorder diagnoses, where it is used to describe someone who has an unhealthy obsession with eating healthy food. 

“Although not yet officially recognised in the medical world, doctors are beginning to acknowledge this as a potentially serious issue that is affecting predominately teenagers and young adults.”

Those with orthorexia may cut out food groups, and regard certain foods such as gluten or dairy, as dangerous, even if they don't have an allergy or health issues. Of course not everyone who does this has orthorexia, but when food becomes an overwhelming obsession, it's a danger sign.

Low weight may not be associated with orthorexia. “Unlike anorexia, where patients are often at a critically low body weight and want to avoid eating altogether, orthorexics may not be under weight, they are willing to eat regular meals but are often greatly restricting quantities of certain food types, such as starchy carbohydrates and/or fats,” explained Miss Moore.

“Orthorexics may have a low body weight / BMI, but not low enough to be considered dangerous. The danger comes more in the malnourishment and mental anguish that inhibits healthy function.”

Orthorexia may lead to further problems such as life-threatening eating disorders, like anorexia nervosa, depression and if left untreated, issues with malnutrition such as bone-thinning and osteoporosis.

Miss Stephanie Moore practises privately in London.

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