Karla Cameron knows only too well the isolating shame that comes with an eating disorder but many thousands are battling the shame of binge eating behind closed doors.

Already the victim of an abusive childhood, Karla Cameron began dieting when she was 15 and by 16 she was battling anorexia; by 17 she was bulimic – and that was just the beginning of her struggle with eating disorders. At 21 she started binge eating, and a seven-year stretch that would take Cameron to her darkest hours.

“I used to think of my binge eating as like a huge vulture descending on me without any warning, cloaking me in darkness, taking over my mind and directing me to run to the fridge and eat now,” Cameron says.

“There was an urgent, out-of-control need to shovel in food. I’ve been in some pretty low and shameful places with my eating. I have eaten food out of the rubbish bin, burnt food, frozen food and even food my dog wouldn’t eat.”

As a result Cameron suffered crazy mood swings, headaches and body aches, and in between the binge eating she would go on a cycle of desperate dieting. “I wanted to climb out of my own skin, I was so uncomfortable,” she says as she recalls the experience.

But even after years of following strict diets and weight loss programs Cameron found she was still 10-15kg overweight.

“Every time an overwhelming feeling rose up, and they were pretty much all overwhelming, I would turn to food as the answer,” she says.

Cameron finally woke up from her binge eating nightmare when she gave birth to her first child at 28 and found a new respect for the body that had delivered a healthy baby (and her second just a year later). It was enough to make Cameron re-examine her relationship with food and give up dieting and calorie counting for good.

Cameron decided to set her own goals and meal plans, undertook spiritual healing and started meditation. She also started to write about her experience in newsletters for the Eating Disorders Association (Qld) and felt it was the first time she was really being heard. It helped turn her life around. Cameron, now 45, has been running her own business for six years – a counselling service for women suffering from eating disorders, called Life After Diets.

“I draw upon both my past personal life and my professional experiences to help people through what I went through.”

While binge eating has long been known as the forgotten disorder, overshadowed by the more prominent profiles of bulimia and anorexia, a recent study has shown that it is the most prevalent eating disorder in Australia. A report released by the Butterfly Foundation late last year found about 914,000 people in Australia suffer from eating disorders. Binge Eating Disorder accounts for the lion’s share at 47 per cent of that number, bulimia 12 per cent and anorexia 3 per cent while other disorders account for the remaining 38 per cent.

According to the report, the socio-economic cost of eating disorders to this country was $69.7billion last year alone.

The Butterfly Foundation claims Binge Eating Disorder is a serious mental illness that is affecting more people every day. It affects people of all ages and genders, across all socio-economic groups and cultural backgrounds. People with the disorder feel a loss of control and sense of shame about their compulsion.

Sarah Dakhili is a social worker with the Eating Disorders Association (Qld) and has also walked the rocky road to recovery after struggling with eating disorders from the age of 16. The association provides information, referral and support group services for people affected by eating disorders. “We do have a lot of people coming to us for help with Binge Eating Disorder, they can be reluctant to seek help if it’s quite new. There is a tendency for people to think ‘I’m the only one who goes through this’ but that’s not true.

“When I hit rock bottom with my own binge eating I got no sense of joy from anything. I couldn’t understand how people could smile and laugh. Then I picked up the phone one day and called around until I found somebody who referred me to a therapist who had gone through a similar experience. I was encouraged to attend support groups and be a part of a community where people have similar challenges. So that’s my advice, get out of your own head and ask for help.”

For help, contact the Eating Disorders Association (Qld) on 1300 550 236 or call the Butterfly Foundation support line on 1800 334 673.