Eating a meal was once as "terrifying" for Annalise Atherton as bungy jumping would be to someone with a fear of heights.

The 17-year-old Whangarei teenager was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa 18 months ago and said it has been a difficult road to recovery.

"It was a two to three hour battle every single meal. It was terrifying, people do say things like, 'Oh, just eat' but it was terrifying."

It was such a terrible way to lose weight. It was in no way healthy.

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Today marks the first annual World Eating Disorders Action Day and Annalise and mum Bella Atherton want people to know an eating disorder is nobody's fault, recovery is possible, and it's okay to ask for help.

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Ms Atherton first noticed Annalise was unwell in November 2014 but believes the under-eating and over-exercising started when the pair, along with another daughter, decided to become healthier.

"Annie seemed to thrive on it and got really into going to the gym and getting fit and people would say Annalise you look amazing, you've lost all that weight," said Ms Atherton.

"The more weight I lost the more confidence I got, people were unintentionally encouraging my eating disorder. What they saw was the weight loss and people associate weight loss with being healthy, but actually the way I was doing it was such a terrible way to lose weight it was in no way healthy," Annalise said.

Annalise had lost a third of her body weight by over-exercising and under-eating. Her diet consisted of cucumber and rice. Ms Atherton said the illness came to light after Annalise had been unwell for "quite a while".

Annalise Atherton, 17, says eating a meal was once
Annalise Atherton, 17, says eating a meal was once "terrifying" to her. Photo / John Stone

"Due to the nature of the illness she had managed to hide it from me. Once I confronted her about it, it was difficult because we were challenging her behaviour."

After a week of monitoring Annalise's eating at home, Ms Atherton took her to the general practitioner for help.

However, he was not trained to deal with anorexia so Ms Atherton went to Te Roopu Kimiora, the child and adolescent mental health service at Whangarei Hospital.

There they faced another barrier, the eating disorder specialist was leaving.

"I spoke to the eating disorder specialist and pleaded my case on the phone," said Ms Atherton. "So they put me through to her and she gave me advice on what to do to feed Annalise to eradicate all anorexia behaviour."

In March 2015, four months along from seeing the GP, Annalise was seen by a psychiatrist and was officially diagnosed with anorexia nervosa.

Ms Atherton said if she had not pleaded her case on the phone it would have been four months of Annalise deteriorating.

Annalise underwent Family Based Treatment, a type of treatment based at home where the entire family is involved and parents control every choice.

Ms Atherton said since Annalise's diagnosis two Whangarei-based nurses have had training in Family Based Treatment and Te Roopu Kimiora receives support from the Regional Eating Disorder Service in Auckland.

Annalise and Ms Atherton said the most common misconceptions about eating disorders is that it is a choice and that weight reflects a sufferer's condition.

"People associate eating disorders with being underweight and being thin, people said to me 'why do you look so sad'.

"This was six or seven months ago, 'But you're better now, why are you still so sad'," said Annalise.

Ms Atherton has established a Whangarei-based support group for families of people suffering with eating disorders.

Where to get help


• For more information on the support group contact Ms Atherton on 0211157919.

• Visit http://www.ed.org.nz/ for more information on eating disorders.