I survived on 100 calories a day, I beat anorexia but lockdown triggered me: shocking 81% rise in eating disorders

SCROLLING through Instagram on her phone, Charlotte Simpson is bombarded with 'lockdown diets' and fitness regimes. 

She has unfollowed dozens of accounts, worried that too much talk of weight loss could trigger a relapse of her anorexia. 


Charlotte, 19, battled the eating disorder for six years, recovering just over a year ago. 

National lockdowns have led to a surge in people of all ages being diagnosed.

Beat, the UK's leading eating disorder charity, has seen an 81 per cent increase in calls to its helpline since March. In the same period, hospital admissions for bulimia rose by 75 per cent.

Across the UK, referrals for treatment are up roughly 40 per cent – an increase typically seen over two years. 

Eating disorders are all about control. None of us have any control over what is going on in the world and some people try to regain control where they can. That might be what or how much they eat or exercise.

Charlotte understands better than most why lockdown has been a trigger for so many. 

"Eating disorders are all about control," says the teenager, who lives in Hitchin, Hertfordshire. 

"None of us have any control over what is going on in the world and some people try to regain control where they can. That might be what or how much they eat or exercise. 

"Lots of young people are also stuck at home with little to do so they may spend more time on social media. There are diets all over Instagram and Facebook and people talking about how much weight they've lost. 

"You can never be 100 per cent recovered from an eating disorder, it's always there. But I am now a healthy weight. 

BEAT

Beat was founded in 1989 and is the UK’s eating disorder charity.

Around 1.25 million people in the UK suffer from these illnesses, many in secret.

According to the NHS, an eating disorder is a mental health condition where you use the control of food to cope with feelings and other situations.

Anyone can get an eating disorder, but teenagers between 13 and 17 are mostly affected.

For adults over 18:

Parents, teachers or any concerned adults should call the adult helpline on 0808 801 0677 or email [email protected]

For children under 18:

The Beat Youthline is open to anyone under 18. Call 0808 801 0711
or email [email protected]

"Lockdown has been difficult. There are times when I've seen something on Instagram and had those thoughts again, I've wanted to be thinner. I've had to stop following some accounts to make sure I stay in a good place." 

Nicky Edwards, a child therapist of Step at a Time Therapies, saw a huge surge in eating disorders after the first lockdown. 

"Some people have eating disorders because there are issues with the way they view their body, but for a lot of people, the lack of routine and feeling they lost control was a massive trigger," she says. 

"There was a spike around July and it has been non-stop ever since. 

Lockdown has been difficult. There are times when I've seen something on Instagram and had those thoughts again, I've wanted to be thinner. I've had to stop following some accounts to make sure I stay in a good place.

"Home learning was challenging for some," Nicky says. "Children were trying to navigate fear about the virus which can lead to anxiety. None of us were able to control what was happening and so some people will try and control some small aspects of their lives. 

“When you are very young there is not a lot you can control, but you can control what you eat. It is caused by a fear that they are not in control or can't cope." 

Charlotte developed anorexia when she was just 13. 

"My grandad passed away. My parents divorced. I'd always been quite insecure anyway," she says. 

"I started looking up fad diets and Googling how to lose weight in a week. I was exercising to a degree that was unhealthy. 

"It started over the summer holidays after my first year at secondary school. When I started Year 8 in September, all my friends commented on how much weight I'd lost. I loved them saying that. It made me want to lose more." 

Charlotte was eating no more than 100 calories a day – weighing out her food and being careful to burn it off afterwards. 

"If I ate so much as an apple, I'd do star jumps in my bedroom to burn off the calories.  

"My mum Rebecca would put dinner on the table but I'd hide it in my slippers so she didn't know I hadn't eaten. Eventually, the weight loss became extreme and mum did notice." 

Charlotte's health deteriorated and aged 13, her mum took her to the GP. She was diagnosed with anorexia and referred to the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS).

She saw specialist nurses on and off for nearly four years. Initially, her health still deteriorated. 

If I ate so much as an apple, I'd do star jumps in my bedroom to burn off the calories.

"I was put on a meal plan which wasn't too bad at first as it was very small amounts," Charlotte recalls. "But I struggled as they tried to increase what I was eating. I remember bursting into tears in the middle of a supermarket when I was with my mum buying all the food. 

"By the time I was 16, I was admitted to hospital. I was told I'd have to go in as an inpatient as tests revealed my blood sugar levels were dangerously low.

"My heart rate was low too. I was fainting a lot. I was in and out of hospital a lot for several months. It was only when I got a new job at Starbucks that I began to feel better about myself and slowly, my health began to improve.” 

Kirsty Day* fears her 16-year-old son Andrew* will end up in hospital if she can’t get him eating again. 

Andrew stopped eating when the UK went into lockdown in November. 

He'd struggled with anxiety early on in the pandemic and developed a stutter. He is now severely underweight and has been diagnosed with anorexia. 

"Andrew struggled when schools first closed," Kirsty recalls. 

"But as life returned a little closer to normal in the summer, he seemed to be doing well and I thought he was back to his normal, happy self. He was loving school and enjoyed spending time with his mates. 

"But when we went into a second lockdown in November, all his anxieties came flooding back. He wouldn't eat, always saying he just didn't feel hungry. He lost over half a stone in weight but as he was slim anyway, the weight loss was a real worry. He didn't look healthy. 

"At dinner he'd eat just one thing off his plate. The rest goes in the bin. He might eat a little bit of potato and that's it. I have tried to stay calm. I didn't want to put pressure on him. It's got to the point where I let him eat whatever he wants. If he wants a plate of chocolate, I let him have it." 

In December, she called Single Point of Access, a telephone mental health advice line, and Andrew was referred to his GP. 

"We have been very lucky in getting help as I know some people have to wait a long time," she says. "The doctor could see his weight loss was severe. He is 5ft 8ins tall and was very underweight.  

At dinner he'd eat just one thing off his plate. The rest goes in the bin. He might eat a little bit of potato and that's it. I have tried to stay calm. I didn't want to put pressure on him. It's got to the point where I let him eat whatever he wants. If he wants a plate of chocolate, I let him have it.

"The GP put him on weight-gaining drinks. He is a little reluctant to have them but he does seem to be drinking them. He hasn't put any weight back on yet." 

Kirsty is not surprised that eating disorders have surged during the pandemic. 

"It has been a difficult year for Andrew," she says. "He was due to sit his GCSEs and a B-Tech in the summer, but those exams have been cancelled," she says.

"Andrew is very academic so that was a real blow. He is worried about his grades especially when it was all so unfair last year.  He can't control any of that, but he can control what he eats.” 

The only positive for Kirsty is that as she was at home with Andrew, she quickly spotted his condition and was able to seek help. 

Many parents have noticed issues earlier as a result of being at home, Nicky says. 

"Sometimes it is easier for children to hide an eating disorder when they are at school," Nicky says. "Families are having breakfast, lunch and dinner together so on the plus side parents are noticing and reaching out for help earlier. 

"Signs to look out for include significant changes in weight, avoidance of mealtimes or getting very upset at mealtimes. Those affected may display an urge to exercise more often too. You should be wary if a child is commenting that they don't like their bodies." 

Signs to look out for include significant changes in weight, avoidance of mealtimes or getting very upset at mealtimes. Those affected may display an urge to exercise more often too. You should be wary if a child is commenting that they don't like their bodies.

Sharon Smith's* seven-year-old daughter Sarah* suffers from PICA, a compulsive eating disorder which sees people eat non-food items such as dirt and clay. 

She has suffered since the age of four but mum says it has worsened during the pandemic. 

"Sarah was only four when she started picking things up and putting them in her mouth," explains Sharon, 35, a mum-of-two from Blackpool. "At first, I thought it was just a phase and I tried not to worry too much, thinking it would pass.

"Sarah is also autistic and can have sensory issues with things like taste and smell so I assumed it was linked. 

"But it carried on and the older she became, the worse it got. I can’t have washing powder in the house as she would ransack the cupboards looking for it and eat it. She'd stick her fingers in the washing machine drawer to scrape some out and lick it off her fingers. 

"Family members have bought her bath bombs but she eats those too." 

Sharon took Sarah to her GP in December 2019 after noticing blood in her stools. Blood tests revealed she was severely anaemic so she was given iron tablets and referred to a paediatrician.

Researchers believe PICA is often linked with anaemia, though they are unsure why. 

Her symptoms deteriorated when the UK went into lockdown in March last year. 

"I was trying to decorate but if I tried to fill a hole, she would pick filler out of the wall and eat it. She still uses a dummy. I'd like her to stop but if I take it away she immediately goes looking for something else to put in her mouth so it's the lesser of two evils right now. 

"If we went for a walk and passed a building site, she'd look for plaster on the floor to eat. She's a big fan of paint." 

"I am trying to home school Sarah and her brother James, who is five," Sharon says. "As soon as I turn my back on her, she tries to eat something. It is very upsetting. She doesn't cope well with the change in routine. 

"No matter where I hide things, she finds stuff to eat. She has ripped doors off cupboards to get to things she wants." 

No matter where I hide things, she finds stuff to eat. She has ripped doors off cupboards to get to things she wants.

Anyone with concerns should contact their GP. Charities such as Beat can also provide support. 

"There is help out there, even during the pandemic," Nicky says. "Don't be afraid to reach out for help and don't delay. It's the most important step you can take to help your child. You should also avoid criticising your child. There is a lot of shame with eating disorders, a lot of guilt and controlling behaviour. Getting angry because you are scared will not help. 

"Be consistent and display healthy eating habits yourself. Avoid talk of diets and cutting out food groups in front of your child." 

Charlotte urges anyone who is struggling with an eating disorder to get help. 

She says landing a job at Starbucks aged 16 boosted her recovery. 

"I was pushed out of my comfort zone. I met new people,” she says. “I think it gave me more confidence and I began to find myself as a person. Gradually, I just started to eat normally again. 

"I've been doing really [well] but I have had setbacks in lockdown. There are times when all I've thought about is exercise and food. I've seen so many people online talking about losing weight or going on diets. 

"I'm much better at coping now and if I start to have those feelings now, I try to take my mind off it. I love doing art. I still enjoy running and I still love my job at Starbucks. 

"Recovering isn't easy, you are going to have setbacks," she adds. "It took me six years to get better, but I did it. I would look at other people who had recovered and always thought I'd never be like that. Now I always say to people you can recover and it's worth it." 

*Names have been changed to protect a child's identity
 

Plus doctors told this woman's anorexic son he had two months to live – she kept thinking it was her fault.

For more investigations, these women gave birth in the pandemic & were treated like they had the plague – one wasn’t fed for 24 hours & had blood-soaked sheets.

Plus this woman said she was bitten by a tick and got Lyme disease – and t’s 'ruined my life'.

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