Freddie Flintoff discusses bulimia battle

Ex-England cricketer and media personality Freddie Flintoff has been praised for bravely sharing details of his personal battle with bulimia.

In the BBC One documentary, Living With Bulimia which aired last night, the sportsman revealed the impact of bulimia on his life and met with other men receiving treatment for their eating disorders. The popular Top Gear presenter spoke about how difficult it had been to be open about his bulimia. Eating disorders, including bulimia, are very often hidden and carry great shame and stigma, especially for men.

Nightingale Hospital’s two clinical leads for eating disorders, Consultant Psychiatrist Dr Helen Murphy, and Counselling Psychologist Dr Joanna Silver, have both praised the documentary for shining a light on the devastating and dangerous illness.

Dr Helen Murphy observed that many of the significant emotional characteristics of the mental health condition were brought to the fore throughout the documentary.

“A theme that came through very strongly was the denial of the problem, the tendency to minimise and the fear of seeking help and changing. Also, the shame that sufferers feel and the vulnerability in admitting there is a problem and talking about it.

It highlighted that bulimia isn’t defined only by vomiting after eating (many patients come to me with this idea) but is about a whole relationship with food and weight and shape, and a range of associated behaviours including restriction of dietary intake, binge eating and vomiting, laxative abuse and compulsive exercise,” she said.

Dr Murphy emphasises the importance of some of the facts and figures highlighted in the programme:

  • Up to 1 in 4 people suffering from an eating disorder are male. We know that more men are now presenting for treatment, and we think this is partly due to an increased incidence in men, and partly because men are now more willing to come forward for treatment.
  • 60% of men with eating disorders don’t seek professional help.
  • People who get help for bulimia are 9 times more likely to recover than those who don’t.

Dr Joanna Silver felt that the programme was extremely helpful in drawing attention to some of the defining challenges of living with bulimia.

“Bulimia is an illness that can be shrouded in secrecy.  A person with bulimia can look very normal and well but be very unwell,” Dr Silver explained.

“This programme highlighted that tragically bulimia can result in death.”

Dr Silver commended the programme for exploring the stigma that surrounds the illness, particularly how difficult it is to be a man with an eating disorder, “as it is considered a ‘women’s’ illness.”

“This can greatly add to a sufferer’s stigma and shame and make it harder to seek help,” she said.

Individuals can feel very ambivalent towards eating disorder treatment, Dr Silver highlighted.

“For some people, an eating disorder can feel like a solution to their problems and give a sense of control when life can feel out of control. It can therefore be very hard to seek and persevere with treatment as an eating disorder can be a coping mechanism.”

Dr Silver said the documentary reiterated the idea that “eating disorders are never just about food but feelings”, and “they are mental illnesses, and not chosen.”

Another important takeaway from the programme, Dr Silver shared, is that “bulimia is not just about bingeing and purging.”

“Many sufferers can have an unhealthy obsession with exercise. Whilst this can appear more ‘socially acceptable’ and even desirable, it can be very dangerous,” she said.

Lastly, Dr Silver highlighted that eating disorders often have an overwhelming impact on families and loved ones of the sufferer.

“It is so hard for family members to manage and they need to have support too,” she noted.

Photo: BBC

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