'It was hell': Eating disorder survivor's warning amid new year health kicks

Warning: This article contains content that may be distressing.

It started as a health kick to lose some weight and quickly spiralled out of control until Jess Dyson was nearly hospitalised with anorexia at 14 years old. 

Dyson, now an eating disorder advocate, says she never thought she would develop an eating disorder and is warning of the dangers of dieting. 

The 27-year-old Aucklander's warning comes as many Kiwis will be pursuing their new year health kick goals and while she says there's nothing wrong with bettering yourself, it's important not to get consumed by it. 

As a teenager, Dyson was happy and content with her body until negative comments from her friends shattered her view of beauty.

"It really, really triggered me. My whole idea of what was beautiful was shaken in a moment and it changed the way I saw myself," she told Newshub.

Her self image issues prompted her to start dieting in an effort to lose weight. At first, she started cutting out a few foods here and there, but that quickly became obsessive and Jess was diagnosed with anorexia. 

"I didn't realise I was developing an eating disorder. I always thought I would never be one of those girls," she explained. 

"I found myself in a really, really dark place where I couldn't eat, I had to do a certain amount of exercise everyday… It was hell and I would never wish it on anyone.

"It was like having a monster inside my head putting me down all the time and controlling me. I didn't feel like I had a voice, I felt really, really trapped. 

Dyson isn't alone in her battle. According to The Ministry of Health around 1.7 percent of New Zealanders, or 76,500, will develop an eating disorder at some point in their lives.

There are many different types of eating disorders, but some common symptoms include restricting food, binging, purging, over-exercising and avoiding certain foods. 

Jess Dyson credits a passion for dance in helping her recover.
Jess Dyson credits a passion for dance in helping her recover. Photo credit: Supplied

Thankfully, discovering a love of dance and getting treatment helped Dyson recover, but she is urging other people who might be struggling to take extra care during this time of year. 

She said the new year health kick, and summer in general, can be really triggering. 

"There is so much pressure around getting that 'perfect summer body' or that 'bikini body'.

Dyson said she still feels pressure to cut back food or over-exercise but chooses not to engage in those behaviours.

New Zealand Eating Disorders Clinic co-director Kellie Lavender says dieting can be extremely dangerous. 

Lavender said the holiday period often pushes people to take up a diet to be healthier, but most people are unaware of the risks. 

"There are so many messages that are very confusing for a lot of people. They will think they are doing something that is good and healthy and will help them without understanding the absolute dangers of losing weight."

She said our bodies don't want to be starved, which is why dieting often leads to binging. 

"Some people are more genetically vulnerable to eating disorders and that will be triggered through dieting. 

"Extreme dieting will most likely lead to binging behaviour and disordered eating."

New Zealand Eating Disorders Clinic co-director Kellie Lavender.
New Zealand Eating Disorders Clinic co-director Kellie Lavender. Photo credit: Supplied

Lavender said the new year brings an influx of patients, especially when school goes back. 

"In general, the talk about new year's resolutions and health and wellness exaggerates the fears and worries people with eating disorders have already.

"The whole beach culture, how we look in togs and things like that can be really triggering for people who have mostly recovered but are still vulnerable."

Lavender said social media can also send young people really bad messages. 

"It's really damaging to have a consistent message about how you should be, what you should look like and what you should eat.

"Young people are very, very vulnerable to these messages and social media can really feed that in a really unhelpful way."  

Jess Dyson is currently working on a programme to support people with eating disorders. 

Where to find help and support: