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Danger signs to look for in your children, by woman who had anorexia from age 12

Joanne Aiken from Eating Disorders NI West
Joanne Aiken from Eating Disorders NI West
Joanne when she was ill
Joanne when she was ill
Joanne when she was ill
Donna Deeney

By Donna Deeney

A woman who lived with an eating disorder for a decade is urging parents to be aware of the signs their child may have an unhealthy relationship with food.

Joanne Aiken (28), from Omagh, was a healthy 12-year-old when she started to control what she ate. Before long, she lost that control and developed anorexia and bulimia.

It was at this low ebb that she recognised she needed medical intervention to help her on the road to recovery.

She now runs the Western Trust's support group Eating Disorders NI West, for the families of people with similar problems.

"Over the past 10 years, people have become more body-conscious, which this has led to an increase in the number of people, especially among men, who have an eating disorder," she said.

"There have been instances where children as young as eight or nine have developed an eating disorder, but thankfully we haven't come across that in our group.

"Between the ages of 12 and 14, and 16 and 18, would be two age groups where there would be a spike in the numbers of people with an eating disorder.

"A lot of developing an eating disorder comes from trying to create an identity for yourself.

"The initial feeling of elation at weight loss soon goes from you controlling your weight to your weight controlling you.

"I am 28 now, but when I was 12 or 13, I started to cut back on my food intake. By the time I was 14, I had developed anorexia.

"Two years later, I developed bulimia, but I didn't fit into either category because I would have starved all week and binged and purged at the weekend."

Joanne was dangerously unwell for several years. At one point her body mass index was just 12.9 - the healthy range is 18.5 to 24.9.

"I struggled with my eating disorder for around 10 years and it does take a long time to recover," she said. "It affected everything from physical development to emotional development.

"I failed my AS-level exams at school, and it was then that I tried to my best to get better in time for my A-levels. I was very emaciated, I was over-exercising, hiding my food and lying about what I ate.

"In my eating disorder head, I was never thin enough. The day I weighed the lightest, I felt bigger than I felt months before, when I was heavier.

"It's a goal you never reach. You could be lying on your death bed with anorexia, but you're not thin enough. There is a target you never get to. It eats you alive.

"When I was 16 and starving myself through the week and binging and purging at the weekend, one weekend I threw up the lining of my oesophagus.

"That really scared me and I realised then I was going to die. I was at home on my own, but I picked up the phone and rang my parents and said 'I need help'."

Joanne now wants to help people struggling as she did.

"The most important thing to remember is there is help and someone with an eating disorder can recover," she said.

"There are key tell-tale signs that parents should look for if they are concerned their child has an eating disorder, including the obvious loss of a lot of weight, if they're seen to be eating but losing weight, personality changes and becoming anxious around food."

  • Anyone affected by this story can contact Eating Disorders NI West on 07597 967613 or email

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