An estimated 725,000 people suffer from eating disorders in the UK, and while still often misunderstood and undertreated, awareness of conditions such as anorexia and bulimia is much better than it used to be.
However, there’s a term you might not have heard of before, and it’s an equally dangerous mental health issue: diabulimia.
So what is it?
The word combines diabetes with bulimia, as it describes the practice of type 1 diabetes sufferers deliberately injecting themselves with less insulin than they need in order to lose weight – risking serious health damage.
While not yet officially recognised as a medical condition, charities such as JDRF estimate 60,000 people aged between 15 and 30 suffer from it, while Diabetes UK cites research that indicates women with type 1 diabetes are twice as likely to develop an eating disorder, and that at least 40% deliberately limit their insulin to lose weight.
The health implications are extensive, as sufferers are essentially restricting their own life-saving treatment for type 1 diabetes.
Serious complications include damage to the eyes, kidneys and nerve endings, fertility problems and possible loss of limbs – not to mention the fact that not having enough insulin leads to a shorter life span. Diabulimics are running the risk of their glucose levels causing hyperglycaemia, which, if left untreated, is fatal – the heart and vital organs will fail.
According to Diabetes UK, it is thought that those with type 1 diabetes may be more susceptible to eating disorders as they have to be hyper aware of their diet at all times, regularly monitoring labels, glucose levels and their weight.
Many believe a lack of awareness of the issue is incredibly damaging, meaning sufferers aren’t identified or aren’t treated effectively.
A BBC article on Megan Davison, a diabulimia sufferer who took her own life this year, includes extracts from a note she left her friends and family, in which she says medical staff treating her in an eating disorder inpatient unit didn’t understand the link between her conditions.
She describes being allowed to still monitor her own insulin because “not one member of staff on the ward was even trained to administer insulin let alone understand it.
“They gave me back my insulin because they couldn’t figure out the doses.
“It’s the equivalent of giving an alcoholic vodka or giving a bulimic a bottle of laxatives.”
Professor Khalida Ismail, quoted in the piece, points out that sufferers can maintain what appears to be a healthy body weight while doing serious damage to themselves.
However, there’s been increased media attention of late and a recent BBC Three documentary, Diabulimia: The World’s Most Dangerous Eating Disorder, has just been made available on iPlayer.
Diabetics With Eating Disorders, which runs training courses for healthcare professionals, campaigns for the issue to be recognised as an eating disorder that requires specialist treatment, while those looking for information and support can visit diabetes.org.uk.
Image: Yoann Boyer