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Rugby union’s first openly gay referee Nigel Owens has revealed he is battling against an ongoing struggle with bulimia nervosa.

The Welsh international rugby union referee, 46, spoke about his own experiences of the condition as research by the BBC’s Panorama programme reveals that there has been an increase in the number of men and boys suffering from eating disorders in the UK.

Nigel, who came out publicly as gay in 2007, said that struggles with his weight and sexuality as a teenager led to the onset of bulimia, which is characterised by a period of overeating followed by fasting or self-induced vomiting or purging.

Writing for the BBC ahead of the broadcast of new documentary Nigel Owens: Bulimia and Me on BBC Wales on Monday (24 July), he reveals: “I’ve spoken about dealing with bulimia in the past but have never before revealed that to this day I continue to struggle with an eating disorder.

“Since the age of 18, I have had bulimia nervosa.”

Owens, who made history when he became the first openly gay referee to helm a Rugby World Cup final two years ago, continues: “It was a secret I was still battling to control as I stepped on to the pitch to referee the Rugby World Cup in 2015. And I’m not alone.”

The Welshman goes on to say that despite having a “happy childhood with loving, supportive parents”, the realisation that he was gay left him battling low self-esteem and depression as he approached the en of his adolescence.

“In the world I grew up in, you get a girlfriend, you get married, you have children, become grandparents… and that’s the way the world turns,” he says.

“But I was finding myself attracted to men and couldn’t figure out what on earth was going on.”

Nigel, who revealed earlier his year that he once attempted to take his own life and asked to be chemically castrated by a doctor as he struggled to come to terms with his sexuality during his 20s, added that he also began to use steroids after bulimia caused him to lose five stone in four months.

“Mental health issues, depression over my sexuality, bulimia and steroids – my life was an unrelenting nightmare,” he says. “I was broken.”

He adds that while he’s undergone periods of remission and relapse, bulimia is something he continues to struggle with the disorder day-to-day.

“It might have been twice a week then nothing for months and months”, Nigel explains. “I know it does more harm than good so why do I still do it from time to time? I don’t know.”

As Panorama reveals that the NHS referred 871 men were referred to eating disorder services in 2016 – an increase from 2014 of 43% – Nigel is encouraging others who may be struggling to be open about the issue and seek professional help and advice.

“I would urge anyone suffering to do something – seek professional advice, tell people about it, don’t hide it, don’t lie about it, that’s a great first step”, he says.

“People who’ve never had an eating disorder can try to imagine what it’s like but they will never know.”

He adds: “I’m speaking openly about it because I know that men and boys can view it as a sign of weakness by admitting there’s a problem that you can’t sort out yourself.

“But it’s not a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of great strength to do that.”

BBC Panorama: Men, Boys & Eating Disorders, airs at 8.30pm on Monday 24 July. BBC Wales Week In Week Out Nigel Owens: Bulimia and Me airs on BBC One Wales at the same time.

Struggling with an eating disorder? Contact Beat: the UK’s eating disorder charity at b-eat.co.uk, or ring the Helpline on 0808 801 0677 or Youthline on 0808 801 0711 between 3pm and 10pm.

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