Causes of eating problems
There's no single cause of eating problems. Most health professionals think they're caused by a combination of factors. Some may be biological, while others come from your surroundings or past.
It might be hard to understand why eating has become an issue for you. This page explains some of the more common factors.
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.
People experiencing eating problems often share common traits. Certain traits may make you more vulnerable to developing an eating problem.
Some common traits include:
- A desire for perfection
- Rarely being satisfied with what you've done
- Being very critical of yourself
- Being overly-competitive about things
- Obsessive or compulsive behaviours (see our pages about obsessive-compulsive disorder)
- A lack of confidence in expressing yourself
The start of your eating problem may be linked to a stressful event or trauma in your life.
Some examples are:
- Physical, emotional or sexual abuse
- Serious family problems
- The death of someone close to you
- Pressures at school or work, such as exams or bullying
Eating problems often develop at the same time as you're going through major life changes such as:
- Starting puberty
- Changing school or university
- Starting a new job
- Exploring your sexuality
- Leaving home or moving to a new place
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.
Researchers aren't sure how much family issues lead to eating problems. Most agree that family is just one of many things that could affect how likely eating problems are.
Some research suggests that eating problems may be more likely if your home didn't feel safe or stable when you were a child.
But there is little research to show that specific family issues cause eating problems. For example, coming from a very protective or inflexible family.
You may feel that your family was significant in your experience of eating problems. Or you may feel that other factors have been more important.
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 and cultural pressures probably don't cause eating problems. However, they can contribute to them and help to keep them going.
We're surrounded by messages about body image through films, magazines, social media and adverts. This can give us unachievable ideas about how we should look.
You might not be aware of it, but you may be comparing yourself to unrealistic images. As a result, this type of social pressure might:
- Make you feel that you are not good enough
- Have a negative impact on your body image and self-esteem
This world is full of images telling us we’re not worthy of a beach unless we look a certain way. The biggest act of rebellion is to like yourself, in spite of those voices telling you you’re not good enough.
If you have physical or mental health problems, you may also develop eating problems.
If you have a physical health problem, this can sometimes make you feel powerless. You may use eating or exercising as a way to feel more in control.
Or an eating problem might begin because you experience a mental health problem. Some examples include:
Your eating problem can also cause mental health problems such as those listed above. It could also be linked to feelings of low self-esteem, worthlessness or powerlessness.
I suffer from depression and anxiety in relation to my eating disorder and it is suspected that I also have borderline personality disorder too.
Research has shown that genes and biology may impact your chance of developing an eating problem.
We all have brain chemicals that control hunger, appetite and digestion. It has been found that some people with eating problems seem to have different amounts of these.
- The brain chemical serotonin can affect your mood and appetite. Some people have too much or too little of this.
- Some hormones control hunger and feeling full. Some people may be more sensitive to these, which could make them more likely to overeat or binge.
Some things, although not the cause of your eating problem, could help to prolong it.
You might be coping with recovery at the moment, or have had eating problems in the past. Try to be aware of certain things that can make your eating problems more likely to come back. Some people call these triggers or 'at risk' times.
For example, you may find talking about food and dieting with friends triggering. It might be helpful to learn what your triggers are, so that you can try your best to avoid them.
The stress of being somewhere new and unknown aggravates my illness.
This information was published in January 2021. We will revise it in 2024.
References and bibliography available on request.
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