Women on television, including news presenters and actresses, are "abnormally thin" and are causing a rise in the number of young women suffering from eating disorders, doctors said yesterday.

Women on television, including news presenters and actresses, are "abnormally thin" and are causing a rise in the number of young women suffering from eating disorders, doctors said yesterday.

A report by the British Medical Association shows that the position has reached an "unacceptable level" with every family doctor in the country treating two patients suffering from anorexia and 18 with bulimia nervosa.

Doctors called for the media to show "more realistic body shapes" to reduce the number of deaths caused by eating disorders. The research shows that the gap between the perceived ideal body shape and reality is widening, as women are generally getting larger while models, actresses and women who appear on television are getting smaller.

The report will be cited at the "Body Image Seminar" at Downing Street on 21 June, organised by Tessa Jowell and Baroness Jay of Paddington, where fashion editors, designers and models will discuss the pressures on young women to be thin.

Professor Vivienne Nathanson of the association, who launched the report, Eating Disorders, Body Image and the Media, said: "Every doctor in the country is seeing people suffering from eating disorders and there is a growing recognition of the devastating consequences.

"It is a psychiatric illness with a high death rate. Those who don't die suffer from long- term health problems, such as teenage girls suffering from early onset of osteoporosis, brittle bone disease."

The research showed that more female characters on television are thinner than average. It has been estimated that models and actresses in the 1990s have 10 to 15 per cent body fat, whereas a healthy woman has 22 to 26 per cent.

"We need more Sophie Dahls and fewer Kate Mosses," said Professor Nathanson. "Actresses on popular drama and television and news presenters tend to be thin. Whereas male news presenters are all different shapes and sizes, female news presenters are all thin. The pressure on these women to be thin and conform is enormous."

There are an estimated 60,000 people in Britain with eating disorders. One in 10 is male but the majority are young women.

Anorexia nervosa affects 1 to 2 per cent of women, aged 15 to 30 in the UK. Of those who develop the disorder, 15 to 20 per cent will die within 20 years.

Dieting is a factor in the development of eating disorders and recent research showed that more young girls are expressing dissatisfaction with their body shapes; one in seven girls aged 11 is on a diet, rising to one in three by the age of 16.

Lorraine Kelly, a presenter on GMTV, who has made two fitness videos about healthy eating and exercise, has been criticised for her own healthy weight but refuses to diet. "Diets don't work and are not the way forward," she said.

Professor Sir William Asscher, the chairman of the board of science and education at the association, said that although there was no scientific proof of a direct causal link between media images of superthin women and eating disorders in young women, all the research pointed to a direct impact on teenage girls. "In societies where there is no culture of thinness, eating disorders are very rare," he said. "Increasing Westernisation has led to an increase in eating disorders in several cultures."

The BBC and ITV dismissed the notion that they only represented "superthin" women on television.

"The BBC seeks to depict real life across the board and shows people of all shapes and sizes," said a spokesman for the corporation. "When we do specifically address the issue of body image through campaigns or programmes, we put the emphasis on health and fitness rather than body size."

A spokesman for ITV said there were a lot of presenters on television, such as Dawn French, Gaby Roslin and Lisa Tarbuck, who were not "superthin" but were among the most successful.

Rebecca Martin, editor in chief of Jump, a monthly magazine for teenage girls, said that it was very difficult to pin down the media as solely responsible for the increase in eating disorders in young girls. "Editors can help by not putting people who look unhealthily thin in their magazines," she said. "We have girls of all shapes and sizes in Jump and try to portray normal women but this does not mean we are anti-thin, some girls are naturally thin."

However, Premier agency, which represents the supermodels Naomi Campbell and Claudia Schiffer, said women who bought fashion magazines featuring thin models were as much to blame as the editors and advertisers.

"Statistics have repeatedly shown that if you stick a beautiful skinny girl on the cover of a magazine you sell more copies," said a spokesman for the agency.