By Melissa Jackson and Jane Elliott
BBC News Online health staff
People who set up pro-anorexia websites which dissuade sufferers from seeking help should be sued, according to a group which helps people overcome eating disorders.
Anorexics buddy up to diet
There are hundreds of "Pro-ana" websites creating an online community where fellow anorexics encourage each other to starve themselves further.
Through the sites, written almost exclusively by girls suffering from anorexia, they glamorise thinness.
They are dominated by images of underweight women and pictures of obese people are posted to warn anorexics about what could happen if they do not stick to their routines.
They use the web to swap handy hints and buddy up to continue their quest for the body 'beautiful'.
Many website providers dislike their sites being used to promote pro-anorexia material and act swiftly to close them down.
And this has driven some of them underground, many are protected with passwords so only members can enter.
With the help of Internet discussion groups, Anas (as they are called) learn how to push the boundaries further and are offered a buddy to keep them strong and urge them to even further weight loss.
And in the States, Anas can often be identified by the wearing of a red bracelet, which has become an underground signal to link anorexics.
But experts are worried about the influence these websites are having on vulnerable people.
Director of the UK National Centre for Eating Disorders Deanne Jade said: "Some of these websites are downright dangerous.
"They are run by people with serious agendas, including those who are anti therapists, believing that 'everyone is out there to make us fat'.
"Anorexics visiting these sites are dissuaded from seeking help, which is a regrettable thing.
"There are people out there who not only dissuade people from getting help, but promote false and dangerous practices on how to lose weight.
"I would quite like to see an individual being sued for the advice they're giving."
Although few think the sites will encourage somebody to become an anorexic, they are concerned that with the help and support of their buddies their illness will continue longer.
Others acknowledge that the sites do provide an element of uncriticising support to anorexics. Support they are unlikely to get elsewhere.
Patrick Davies, a senior registrar in the emergency department in Sydney Children's Hospital, explained that in the wrong hands the Internet could become a dangerous tool.
"Sometimes it seems that people with anorexia are looking for support and this seems a good way of finding it.
"Last night I got an email from somebody who had read my article in 'The Psychologist'.
"She was not in favour of the message of the pro-anorexia web-sites but did appreciate the support she received there.
"It is often the only way people can get support without anyone nagging them."
Dr Davies said that as a doctor he found it difficult to cope with some of the contents of the sites.
He said that many offered advice and handy hints to users to enable them to dupe their medics and that this made their jobs even more difficult.
"There are tricks about how to cheat doctors and professionals and how to make it seem as if they are eating.
"They use the chat rooms to buddy up in pairs and to encourage each other to lose weight and to keep going.
"I don't think these sites will cause anyone to become anorexic, but will cause people who are on that path to continue.
"It can prolong the condition, but I don't think it will set it off."
Susan Ringwood, chief executive of the Eating Disorders Association, said she found some of the sites very distressing.
"There is some responsible usage of people running these sites so just banning them is not going to be the answer.
"It would also make it more attractive to some people if it was made illegal.
"But I did find some of the sites fairly distressing."
And she said she would like to see the sites that were running offer users more positive advice about recovery and how to promote it.