As Gok Wan talks about his eating disorder, here's how to spot the signs of anorexia in a young person

22nd Mar 19 | Lifestyle

It's not always obvious, say experts.

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We all know Gok Wan as the confident, bubbly and self-assured fashion expert on TV – but in his younger years, the presenter suffered from crippling low-self esteem which brought on an eating disorder at the age of 21.

Reflecting on the past, Wan – who is now 44 – shared a poignant letter with fans on Instagram, revealing that he once survived on just spoonfuls of honey a day.

“I was always a fat child. I had tried every diet but nothing ever stuck. But, at 21 I began a diet and within a year I had lost almost half my body weight. 10 stone,” wrote Wan.

“Honestly? It wasn’t a diet, I was starving myself, some days eating no more than a couple of teaspoons of honey.

“One night I sat on my bed and stared at the mirror looking at my frail body. Skin was falling off my bones.”

The Say Yes to the Dress star continued: “It was the loneliest place I had been to. I wanted to die because I knew I was sick and I didn’t know how to stop the voices in my head telling me I was ugly, fat and not good enough.”

Thankfully, Wan said that with time he was able to recover, and hoped that sharing his story would help his fans that struggle with body-confidence issues too.

“I’m telling you this because if we all talk more, listen more, and admit at times we are allowed to be weak then maybe one day there will be one less young person looking at their reflection wanting to be anyone other than themselves,” he wrote.

While statistics show that eating disorders are more common in girls, they do occur in boys and can happen in young people of all backgrounds and cultures.

That’s why it’s important for parents to be clued up on the signs that an interest in dieting may have snowballed into a more serious mental health problem.

“Eating disorders are very complex mental illnesses and can be hard to spot, but there are some common signs,” explains Rebecca Willgress, head of communication at eating disorder charity Beat.

Here, she shares the most common red flags you should be looking out for.

1. Behaviour changes

“Keep an eye out for a young person who has become withdrawn, distracted, aggressive or defensive, especially around mealtimes or when their eating behaviours are questioned,” says Willgress. “Be aware that this is not their fault, and nor is it parents’ – it is the illness speaking.”

2. Becoming obsessed with food and diet

Willgress explains that an obsession with food generally revolves around a person wanting to control everything they eat. “This can appear in many forms, such as knowing ingredients and calories, and possibly saying they are following a certain diet to hide their illness.”

3. Weight change

It’s a myth that you can visibly see all eating disorders. “Eating disorders are mental illnesses and you do not have to be underweight to have one,” warns Willgress, “but rapid weight loss or gain can be a sign of disordered eating.”

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4. Excessive exercise

Alongside avoiding food, a person may use exercise as a way of controlling their body size. “People may use exercise to purge and may feel they have to burn more calories than they consume,” notes Willgress.

“At this point, exercise becomes something no longer done for relaxation but becomes an obsession.”

5. Tiredness and struggling to concentrate.

Are they struggling to keep up with their university studies or sleeping throughout the day? Willgress notes that constant tiredness is a major sign that something bigger might be at play.

6. Perfectionism and setting unreasonably high standards

Much like Wan described, many young people who suffer with anorexia often struggle with feelings of low self-worth. “People with eating disorders often compare themselves negatively to others and judge themselves harshly, not necessarily just in relation to food or body shape,” says Willgress.

If you’re concerned about someone you know, Beat have an online directory of local eating disorder services on their website, as well as a helpline that can offer advice and support to parents: 0808 801 0677.

© Press Association 2019