More concerns raised by experts over eating disorder prevalence

Dr Alex Yellowlees, consultant psychiatrist at the Priory Group, has become increasingly disturbed that the drive towards thinness is leading to issues with food and body image for a generation of young people, particularly young women.

Eating disorders often occur as a result of deeper emotional and psychological problems, whereby controlling food intake through overeating or under eating is used as a coping mechanism for feelings such as stress, anxiety, depression, sadness, anger or other difficult emotions.

However, social factors are also hugely influential in the causes of eating disorders. Low self-esteem can reveal itself through eating disorders. Negative body image and/or body image distortion are also frequent causes of eating disorders.

In the letter, Dr Yellowlees says: "To encourage a positive attitude towards different body sizes using models who are not ultra thin would send the powerful message that healthy beats skinny. These unrealistic, overly-thin mannequins have the potential to have a detrimental effect on vulnerable young people's low self-esteem and feelings of inadequacies about their looks and body size."

As the author of a respected books on the subject 'Working with Eating Disorders and Self-Esteem' Dr Yellowlees is a renowned practitioner in the field and of the firm opinion that idealistic images are a major factor in the prevalence of anorexia and related conditions .

He said: "The increasing drive towards thinness in western culture remains one of the most important ingredients in the mix. Our society grossly overvalues thinness, making it into a modern day virtue. Women grow up brainwashed into the belief that in order to be considered worthy, successful and attractive they have to be thin!"

Dr Yellowlees continued: "Young women seeking a sense of self-esteem, self-identity and confident femininity are more vulnerable to society's seductive messages suggesting that in order to be worthy, sexy, successful, powerful and happy they must pursue the perfect body at all costs."  

"They look up to and emulate female role models for direction about how to live as a woman in our society. Today these women are generally thin. This is not healthy."  

"The media and glossy magazines in particular are in a unique position to actually change perceptions and make a real difference and I have asked that they exert editorial influence to do so."  

"A change in what they see on the pages of prestigious magazines could change the image young girls strive for and hopefully save some of them from the misery of an eating disorder."  

"Eating disorders are complex conditions and often require a number of different professionals working together to treat them. The health consequences of an ongoing eating disorder can be severe and sometimes fatal. The sooner an eating disorder diagnosis is made, the sooner treatment can begin and the greater the chances of a successful recovery."  

"It can be difficult for anyone to acknowledge that they have an eating disorder but professional help should always be sought as soon as possible. Anorexia needs specialist help to treat both the psychological causes and its physical effects."  

"Contacting your GP is often the easiest way to get help and further treatment. They may offer you psychological counselling or dietary counselling, or refer you to a specialist, such as the Priory hospitals for further assessment. This may lead to outpatient treatment or, if more serious, day or inpatient treatment."  

"Enjoying a full recovery from an eating disorder is highly achievable, particularly when help is sought early on and treatment followed through a structured programme. Treatment for an eating disorder can be life-changing."

The most accurate figures regarding the prevalence of eating disorders are those from the National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence. These suggest that 1.6 million people in the UK are affected by an eating disorder, of which around 11% are male. However, more recent research from the NHS information centre showed that up to 6.4% of adults displayed signs of an eating disorder (Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey, 2007). Eating disorders are responsible for the highest number of deaths from psychiatric illness.

Anyone can develop an eating disorder, regardless of age, sex, cultural or racial background, although the people most likely to be affected tend to be young women, particularly between the ages of 12-25.*

* Priory Group eating disorder series are based in Altrincham, Aberdeen, Brighton, Bristol, Cheadle (Cheshire), Chelmsford, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Hayes Grove, North London, Preston, Roehampton, Southampton, Ticehurst (Sussex), Woking and Birmingham.