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Tuesday, August 31, 1999 Published at 15:59 GMT 16:59 UK


Eating disorders linked to addiction

People with eating disorders need re-education about healthy eating

Eating disorders are an addiction similar to drug or alcohol misuse and sexual obsession, a four-day conference has been told.

The first meeting of the International Substance Abuse and Addiction Congress (ISAAC), a Christian network, is addressing a broad spectrum of addictive problems, including sex addiction which President Clinton was widely claimed to be suffering from during 'Monicagate'.

Hosted by the Evangelical Alliance Coalition on Drugs at the University of Kent, it is thought to be the largest international Christian conference ever held on addiction and involves at least 250 experts.

Doreen Williams, founder of Anorexia and Bulimia Care UK, a Christian organisation funded by membership fees and donations, told delegates that eating disorders were caused by a complex range of factors, but shared similarities with other addictions such as drug and alcohol abuse.

"In order to cope with the stresses or distresses of life, many people use food or abstention from food in much the same way as those with other addictions would use other things," she said.

Ms Williams said many people had a variety of different addictions.

She felt that seeing eating disorders in a broader spectrum helped to address the fundamental spiritual problems behind them, caused by an unmet spiritual need.


Anorexia and Bulimia Care UK, which offers self-help resources, befrienders and referral to counsellors, has been in operation for 10 years.

The majority of people referred to it are not from church groups, said Ms Williams, but from British Telecom helpline lists, eating disorder databases and personal recommendations.

"The church still has a long way to go on dealing with eating disorders," she stated.

She added that this only reflected society's reluctance as a whole to deal with eating disorders.

"In general, the whole area of food touches people personally and they find it quite threatening.

[ image: Anorexia is estimated to affect 5% of teenage girls in the UK]
Anorexia is estimated to affect 5% of teenage girls in the UK
"We live in a very body conscious nation which gives out negative messages about food. Plus people get very embarrassed about psychological problems."

She called for more money to be invested in treating eating disorders, saying current treatment had a high failure rate.

"We need multi-disciplinary ways of dealing with the problem, including counselling, understanding food and a reintroduction to food so people can learn what normal eating is," she said.

She added that low self-esteem was a major factor in eating disorders and said some people found that a religious approach, which emphasised unconditional love, could help build their confidence.

Gilly Green, a psychotherapist specialising in eating disorders at the Centre for Eating Disorders in London, agreed eating disorders shared similarities with other addictions.

She said: "Many people are using food as a coping mechanism to deal with stress and to block out feelings.

"Sometimes they have also tried drugs and/or alcohol for similar reasons. Very often there is a pattern in a family of using food, drugs or alcohol to handle difficult situations.

"Sometimes children learn this from their parents. The problem is that food is everywhere. You have to have it to live, unlike alcohol and drugs, so the problem is more widespread."

She added that clients often said they had "a gap in their lives" which Christians could view as a spiritual vacuum.

But she said it could be more broad-based and linked to bereavement, a feeling of lack of control or the lack of a special relationship, for example.


The ISAAC conference also heard from Keith Hellawell, the UK's anti-drug coordinator, on Tuesday.

The conference will culminate in a declaration on tackling drug abuse.

It is expected to call for more action from churches and governments to address the problem.

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