Fearne Cotton's bulimia battle: the eating disorder explained

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 29: Fearne Cotton attends the Virgin Money Giving Mind Media Awards 2018 at Queen Elizabeth Hall on November 29, 2018 in London, England. (Photo by Jeff Spicer/Getty Images)
Fearne Cotton battled bulimia "on and off" throughout her twenties. [Photo: Getty]

Fearne Cotton has opened up about her secret battle with bulimia.

The presenter, 38, has revealed she endured the “intense” eating disorder “on and off” for 10 years, with it “ruling everything” while she was in her twenties.

Despite presenting a Radio 1 show and Top of the Pops at the time, Fearne did not feel “cool enough, smart enough or good enough”, with bulimia being “like a release”.

Speaking on the How To Fail with Elizabeth Day podcast, the TV personality claims she “let go” of the “bad habit overnight” when she became a mother to six-year-old Rex.

READ MORE: Bulimia – An introduction

Fearne, who is open about her anxiety struggles, said: “At the beginning of my twenties, it was quite intense and sort of ruled everything.

“In my later twenties, it was a bad habit I would kick into if something emotional was happening or if I felt out of control.”

Now fully recovered, Fearne claims food is her “everything”, with her even publishing several cook books.

Bulimia nervosa is a “serious mental illness” that can affect anyone, regardless of their age, sex or background, according to the charity Beat Eating Disorders.

Sufferers are caught in a cycle of bingeing and then trying to compensate for their overeating.

This may be via vomiting, taking laxatives, fasting or excessively exercising.

While many of us overindulge from time-to-time, bingeing leaves bulimics unable to control how much, or quickly, they eat.

They may also consume fatty foods they would normally avoid and be left feeling distressed.

Bulimia is often centred around a desire to lose weight, with many sufferers seeing themselves as larger than they are.

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - 2019/05/18: Fearne Cotton seen during the British Podcast Awards 2019 at the Kings Place in London. (Photo by Gary Mitchell/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Fearne claims she "let go" of the disorder "overnight" when she became a mother. [Photo: Getty]

How common is bulimia? And what are the symptoms?

Around 1.25 million people in the UK are thought to have an eating disorder, of which a quarter are male, according to Beat.

A 2015 study estimated bulimia makes up 15% of all eating disorders.

In the US, 4.7 million women (1.5%) and 1.5 million men (0.5%) are thought to develop bulimia at some point in their lives, according to the eating disorder charity Mirror-Mirror.

While anyone can suffer, patients tend to be in their late teens or early adulthood.

Bulimia can be tricky to spot, with many sufferers working hard to hide their condition from others.

The cycle of bingeing and purging can mean a sufferer’s weight does not change that much overall.

However, you may notice them frequently looking themselves over in the mirror or checking their weight on the scales.

Alternatively, they may actively avoid looking at themselves.

READ MORE: Eating Disorders Awareness Week: What you need to know to help

Many also act “sneaky” around food and feel self conscious eating in front of others.

After a binge, some experience feelings of guilt, shame and anxiety. They may also be irritable, show signs of low self-esteem and experience erratic mood swings.

Many plan their life around their bingeing and purging behaviour, causing them to withdraw socially, skip school or not turn up to work.

Physical symptoms to look out for include tooth decay due to the frequent vomiting.

Patients may also endure fatigue, bloating, constipation, abdominal pain, irregular periods, and swollen hands and feet.

If you are concerned about a loved one, look out for whether they eat a lot and quickly.

Going to the bathroom after a meal, and returning looking flushed, should also raise alarm bells.

What causes bulimia - and how is it treated?

The cause of bulimia is complex and poorly understood.

Research suggests some people are genetically predisposed to eating disorders.

Female relatives of a bulimia patient may be 3.7 times more likely to develop the condition themselves, according to Beat.

It is unclear whether genetics or environmental factors are at play here.

You may be more at risk if your body shape or weight has been criticised in the past, according to the NHS.

Professions that focus on weight - such as ballet or modelling - could also make a personal more vulnerable.

Having an obsessive personality, being a perfectionist and a history of sexual abuse may also raise the risk.

If you suspect you have bulimia, the NHS stresses you should see your GP as soon as possible. They will ask you about your eating habits and check your weight. If your doctor suspects you have bulimia, you will be referred to specialists.

For those worried about a loved one, tell them you are concerned and offer to go to their GP with them.

READ MORE: One Man’s Battle with Bulimia

As a mental illness, patients are often first offered self-help books.

These guide them through learning their triggers for bingeing, how to monitor what they are eating and tips on coping with their emotions.

If this fails to help, therapy may enable patients to tackle the underlying thoughts and feelings responsible for their behaviour.

Talking to a professional may also help a patient better cope with their unhealthy eating habits.

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is often recommended, with many having positive results, according to Beat.

CBT helps people deal with their problems by breaking them down into smaller “parts”.

It focuses on changing negative thought patterns to develop healthier coping mechanisms.

Most are offered 20 sessions across 20 weeks, according to the NHS.

Antidepressants may also be prescribed alongside therapy if the patient is battling anxiety, depression, social phobia or obsessive compulsive disorder.

Young patients are usually offered family therapy. This involves their loved ones sitting with them during the sessions so they can learn how to support the patient better.

Most treatment takes place in outpatient services.

Patients are usually only hospitalised if they are at risk of suicide or severe self harm.

Those who are very underweight, have heart problems or are at risk of dying from the condition may also be called in.

Beat also encourages patients to attend self-help and support groups that enable them to talk through their experiences with others who have been through similar things.

Left untreated, bulimia can cause long-term damage.

A patient’s teeth may be corroded by the acid in their vomit, which can also harm their vocal cords and throat.

Sufferers may also be left with damage to their intestines, stomach and kidneys, as well as an increased risk of heart problems.

Research suggests 45% of bulimia sufferers make a full recovery, while 27% improve “considerably” and 23% have a chronic condition, according to Beat.

If you are concerned yourself - or a loved one - has bulimia, contact Beat.