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Eating problems

Learn about eating problems, including possible causes, symptoms and how to access treatment and support. Includes self-care tips for helping yourself, plus guidance for friends and family.

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What is an eating problem?

An eating problem is any relationship with food that you find difficult.

Many people think that someone with an eating problem will be over or underweight. People might also think that certain weights are linked to certain eating problems. Neither of these points are true.

Anyone can experience eating problems. This is regardless of age, gender, weight or background.

Food plays a significant part in our lives. Most of us will spend time thinking about what we eat. Sometimes you might:

  • have cravings
  • eat more than usual
  • lose your appetite
  • try to eat healthier.

Changing your eating habits like this every now and again is normal.

But if you feel like food and eating is taking over your life, it may become a problem.

What's the difference between an eating problem and an eating disorder?

  • An eating disorder is a medical diagnosis. This diagnosis is based on your eating patterns and includes medical tests on your weight, blood and body mass index (BMI). See our page on diagnosed eating disorders for more information.
  • An eating problem is any relationship with food that you find difficult. This can be just as hard to live with as a diagnosed eating disorder.

What's it like to have an eating problem?

If you have an eating problem, there are many ways that it can affect how you feel or behave. The way you eat, and how you think about food, may be one of the most noticeable effects.

Warning: the video and the examples below may be upsetting and potentially triggering. If you are feeling vulnerable at the moment, you might want to move on to the next section.

Watch Shaista, Dave, Lilith and Olivia talk about their eating problems. They discuss their experiences of eating disorders such as anorexia, restrictive eating, bingeing and purging. This video is seven minutes and 16 seconds long.

View video transcript as a PDF (opens in new window)

If you have an eating problem, you might be familiar with some of the following behaviours.

You might:

  • restrict the amount of food you eat
  • eat more than you need, or feel out of control when you eat
  • eat regularly in secret or have a fear of eating in public
  • feel very anxious about eating or digesting food
  • eat in response to difficult emotions without feeling physically hungry
  • stick to a rigid set of diet rules or certain foods
  • feel anxious and upset if you have to eat something else
  • do things to get rid of what you eat, sometimes known as purging
  • feel disgusted at the idea of eating certain foods
  • eat things that aren't really food, such as dirt, soap or paint
  • feel scared of certain types of food
  • think about food and eating a lot, even all the time
  • compare your body to other people's and think a lot about its shape or size
  • check, test and weigh your body very often
  • base your self-worth on your weight, or whether you pass your checks and tests.

"Food was like poison to me. It resembled all the negativity in my life. It made me feel weighed down by impurity, dirtiness, ugliness and selfishness. My body shape made me miserable and I spent all day everyday thinking about how great life would be if I was skinny."

How might eating problems affect my life?

Eating problems are not just about food. They can be about difficult things and painful feelings. You may be finding these hard to express, face or resolve.

Focusing on food can be a way of hiding these feelings and problems, even from yourself. Eating problems can affect you in lots of ways.

You might feel:

  • depressed and anxious
  • tired a lot of the time
  • ashamed or guilty
  • scared of other people finding out.

You might find that:

  • it's hard to concentrate on your work, studies or hobbies
  • controlling food or eating has become the most important thing in your life
  • it's hard to be spontaneous, to travel or to go anywhere new
  • your appearance is changing or has changed
  • you are bullied or teased about food and eating
  • you develop short- or long-term physical health problems
  • you want to avoid socialising, dates and restaurants or eating in public
  • you have to drop out of school or college, leave work or stop doing things you enjoy.

With friends, family or other people, you might feel that:

  • you're distant from those who don't know how you feel, or who are upset they can't do more to help
  • they focus a lot on the effect eating problems can have on your body
  • they only think you have a problem if your body looks different to how they think it should be
  • they sometimes comment on your appearance in ways you find difficult
  • they don't really understand how complicated things are for you.

"I wish people would move away from stereotypes and understand that eating disorders are not only to do with weight, but thoughts, feelings and behaviours – regardless of the number a scale shows, and regardless of physical appearance."

How do I know if it's a problem?

As it may feel like part of your everyday life, you might be unsure if your issue with food and eating is a problem. But if your relationship with food and eating is affecting your life, you can seek help. It doesn't matter how much you weigh or what your body looks like.

Some people don't seek help because they think their problem is not serious enough. Sometimes they do not feel ‘ill enough’ to have an eating problem.

It's also possible to have problems with eating and keep them hidden. Sometimes this can be for very long time.

"I never looked ‘ill’. When I read about eating disorders it was always girls with acute anorexia. Because that wasn’t me, I felt like my behaviour was just a bizarre quirk I’d made up."

Lucy smiling with a field in the background

Do I have a right to recovery?

"How do I have a right to recovery if I was never 'really' ill?"

Eating problems and other mental health problems

Many people with eating problems also have other mental health problems. Some common experiences include:

Food is one of many mediums through which anxiety, depression or obsessive-compulsive behaviours can be expressed.

"My eating disorder has always gone hand in hand with depression and anxiety in such a way that they haven't felt like distinct, discrete illnesses but like one issue."

Suicidal feelings

You may have thoughts about death or suicidal feelings. You might feel that you want to die. You might feel that it is the only way to escape your eating problem. This can be very frightening and make you feel alone.

You can contact Samaritans 24/7 to get support for these feelings. If you are under 35, you might find it helpful to contact Papyrus.

If you feel unable to keep yourself safe, it's a mental health emergency.

Get emergency advice

This information was published in January 2021. We will revise it in 2024.

References are available on request. If you would like to reproduce any of this information, see our page on permissions and licensing.

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