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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.

What causes eating problems?

There is no single cause of eating problems. Most health professionals think they're caused by a combination of factors.

Some factors 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. The reasons can be complex and confusing.

"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."

Traits of people with eating problems

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.

Difficult life experiences

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.

Abuse and eating problems

"I want to explain how being a victim of abuse has been the cause of my current eating disorder."

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."

Family issues

Eating problems can be caused or made worse by your family experiences. They might be linked to childhood issues in particular.

You may have started using food as a way to gain more control over your life. For example if:

  • your parents were particularly strict
  • your home didn't feel like a safe or stable place
  • your parents had very high expectations of you.

Through family experiences, you may have developed traits like perfectionism and self-criticism. These can make you vulnerable to eating problems.

Other people in your family may have been dieting, over-eating or experiencing an eating problem. In turn, this can have 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

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.”

Social media and eating problems

Images of ‘perfection’ can be hard to avoid if you use social media. But try not to compare yourself or anyone else to these images.

Be aware that before posting photos online, people commonly make use of:

  • apps which allow them to alter parts of their face or body
  • filters which can make them appear to have flawless skin
  • camera angles, lighting and photo editing tools to improve their overall appearance.

Try to remind yourself people post photos on social media that are often edited to look better than reality. It can feel difficult, so sometimes taking yourself offline for a while might help. See our pages on online mental health for more information.

You can also use social media in a positive way in your recovery. Read more on the Beat blog – Eating Disorders and Social Media.

Physical and mental health problems

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."

Biological and genetic factors

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.

Perinatal eating problems

Perinatal describes the time from becoming pregnant, up to a year after giving birth. Some people find that eating problems can get worse during this period.

Find out more about eating problems and pregnancy from Tommy's, the midwife-led charity.

Triggers or 'at risk' times

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 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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