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 causes an eating problem?

There is no single cause of eating problems – most professionals think they come from a combination of environmental and biological factors. It might be hard to understand why it has become an issue for you, as the reasons may be complex and confusing.

This page covers:

"My eating problem was a response to difficult changes happening to me and the questions of identity these changes raised, but was also set against a backdrop of bullying, poor mental health and low self-esteem throughout my time at school."

Can you be a feminist and have an eating disorder?

"This only added to the shame tied into my eating disorder."

Habits and traits

People with eating problems often share common traits which may make them more vulnerable, for example:

  • perfectionism – wanting everything to be perfect and rarely being satisfied with what you have done
  • being very critical of yourself
  • being very competitive
  • obsessive or compulsive behaviour
  • a lack of confidence in expressing yourself.

Difficult life experiences

The beginning of eating problems can be linked to a stressful event or trauma. This can mean physical, emotional or sexual abuse, the death of someone close to you, divorce or serious family problems. Or it could be pressures at school or work such as facing exams or being bullied.

Eating problems often develop at the same time as you are going through major life changes such as puberty, going to a new school, working out your sexuality, or leaving home for the first time.

"My eating problem began when I was younger and was bullied a lot. I lost my appetite through stress and felt like people would like me more if I was thinner and seemed more in control. I associated eating with feeling like I was losing control."

Family issues

Eating problems can be caused or made worse by childhood experiences. For example, if your parents were particularly strict, or home didn't feel like a safe or consistent place, you may have begun to use food as a way of gaining more control over your life. If they had very high expectations of you, you may have developed personality traits like perfectionism and self-criticism that can make you vulnerable to eating problems.

And if other people in your family were dieting, over-eating or experiencing an eating problem, this may have had an impact on you too.

"I had issues with my eating when my parents split up. It was the only part of my life that I felt like I could control, and I craved that control as everything else spiralled.​"

Social pressure

Although social and cultural pressures probably don't cause eating problems, they can contribute to them and help to keep them going. Films, magazines, social media, adverts and peer pressure means that we are surrounded by messages about our body and (unachievable) ideas about how we should look.

You might not even be aware that it is happening, but you may find yourself comparing yourself with these unrealistic images and feeling bad about yourself as a result. This kind of social pressure can make you feel that you are not good enough, and can have an impact on your body image and self-esteem.

Physical and mental health problems

If you have physical or mental health problems, you may also develop eating problems. Having a physical health problem can make you feel powerless, so you may be using eating or exercise as a way of feeling in control.

Eating problems can begin because you experience a mental health problem such as depressionanxietybipolar disorder or body dysmorphic disorder. They can be linked to feelings of low self-esteem, worthlessness or powerlessness. Having an eating problem can also cause you to experience these kinds of mental health problems.

Biological and genetic factors

Research has shown that your genes may have an impact on whether you are vulnerable to developing an eating problem.

It has also been found that some people with eating problems seem to have different amounts of the brain chemicals that control hunger, appetite and digestion. For example:

  • Having too much or too little of the brain chemical serotonin can affect your mood and appetite.
  • Some people may be more sensitive to the hormones that control hunger and fullness. This could make them more likely to overeat or binge.

Research is ongoing to find out more about the possible biological and genetic causes of eating problems.

Triggers or 'at risk' times

Some things, although not the cause of your eating problem, could help to keep it going once it has developed. If you have had eating problems in the past, or you are coping with recovery at the moment, you might find it helpful to think about things that might make it more likely that your eating problems will come back – for example stressful situations or going on a diet. Some people call these 'triggers' or 'at risk' times.

Perinatal eating problems

Some women find that eating problems get worse during pregnancy or after having a baby. You can find more information about eating problems around pregnancy on the midwife-led charity Tommy's website.

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