for better mental health

Eating problems

Explains eating problems, including possible causes and how you can access treatment and support. Includes tips for helping yourself, and guidance for friends and family.

What is an eating problem?

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

Food plays an important part in our lives and most of us will spend time thinking about what we eat. Sometimes we may try to eat more healthily, have cravings, eat more than usual or lose our appetite. Changing your eating habits every now and again is normal.

But if food and eating feels like it's taking over your life then it may become a problem.

Lots of people think that if you have an eating problem you will be overweight or underweight, and that being a certain weight is always associated with a specific eating problem. This is a myth. Anyone, regardless of age, gender or weight, can be affected by eating problems.

What's it like to have an eating problem?

Watch Shaista, Dave, Lilith and Olivia talk about their experience of eating problems.

There are lots of different ways that an eating problem can affect how you feel or behave, especially the way you eat and how you think about food. We have listed some examples below.

Warning: it may be upsetting and potentially triggering to read these examples. If you are feeling vulnerable at the moment, you might not want to read the information below.

If you have an eating problem you might:

  • restrict the amount of food you eat
  • eat more than you need or feel out of control when you eat
  • eat a lot in secret
  • feel very anxious about eating or digesting food
  • eat lots of food in response to difficult emotions (when you don't feel physically hungry)
  • only eat certain types of food or stick to a rigid set of diet rules and feel very anxious and upset if you have to eat something different
  • do things to get rid of what you eat (purging)
  • stick to rigid rules around what you can and can't eat and how food should look – and feel very upset if you break those rules
  • feel strongly repulsed at the idea of eating certain foods
  • eat things that are not really food
  • be scared of certain types of food or eating in public
  • think about food and eating a lot or all the time
  • compare your body to other people's and think about their shape or size a lot
  • check, test and weigh your body a lot – and base your self-worth on how much you weigh 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."

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

  • An eating disorder is a medical diagnosis based on your eating patterns, and medical tests on your weight, blood and body mass index (BMI). (See our page on 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.

How might eating problems affect my life?

Eating problems are not just about food. They can be about difficult things and painful feelings, which you may be finding hard to express, face or resolve. Focusing on food can be a way of disguising these problems, even from yourself.

Eating problems can affect you in lots of ways. You might:

  • find it difficult to concentrate and feel tired a lot
  • find that controlling food or eating has become the most important thing in your life
  • feel depressed and anxious
  • feel ashamed or guilty and scared of other people finding out
  • feel distant from friends or family who do not know how you feel or who are frustrated and upset that they can't do more to help you
  • avoid social occasions, dates and restaurants or eating in public
  • find it hard to be spontaneous, to travel or to go anywhere new
  • find that your appearance has changed
  • find that other people comment on your appearance in ways you find difficult
  • find that you are bullied or teased about food and eating
  • develop short- or long-term physical health problems
  • find that you have to drop out of school or college, leave work or stop doing things you enjoy.

You might find that other people focus a lot on the effect eating problems can have on your body, or that they only think you have a problem if your body looks different to how they think it should be, and that they don’t really understand how complicated things are for you.

It's also possible to have problems with eating and keep them hidden – sometimes for very long time. You might not even be sure that your issues with food and eating are a ‘problem’, as it may feel like just part of your everyday life. Some people don't seek help because they think their problem is not serious enough or they are not 'good enough' at their eating problem.

But if your relationship with food and eating is affecting your life, it is ok to seek help. It doesn't matter how much you weigh or what your body looks like.

"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. Ironically, it felt like I couldn’t even do self-destruction properly… I felt like a fraud and came down on myself harder."

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

Lots of people with eating problems also have other mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorders. Food is one of many mediums through which anxiety, depression or obsessive-compulsive behaviours can be expressed. Body dysmorphic disorder is an anxiety disorder linked to body image, which can also lead to eating problems.

For some people, eating problems are linked to self-harm – you may see your eating problem as a form of self-harm, and you may hurt yourself in other ways too. For others they're related to body image and self-esteem. And for others eating problems can be more like a phobia of certain foods.

"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, or that it is the only way to escape your eating problem. This can be very frightening and make you feel alone.

For support with these feelings you can contact the Samaritans who are available 24 hours a day. If you are under 35, you might find it helpful to talk to Papyrus.

This information was published in June 2017. We will revise it in 2020.

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

Share this information

arrow_upwardBack to Top