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.

Your stories

Not just a girl's disease...

Mark blogs about his experience with anorexia.

Mark Gould
Posted on 25/02/2011

Eating disorders are not a lifestyle choice

Georgina's blog for Time to Change on her experience of bulimia and anorexia and the misconceptions she faced.

Posted on 29/11/2012

Abuse and eating problems

Georgie talks about how the abuse she's experienced relates to her eating disorder.

Posted on 24/02/2014

What causes an eating problem?

There is no single cause of eating problems, and sometimes it can be hard to understand why it has become an issue for you. The reasons for your eating problem may be very complex and confusing. You may have had certain experiences or have personality traits that help you understand where you eating problem came from, but this is often very personal.

Who can be affected by an eating problem?

While you may feel that a problem you have with eating is unusual or shameful, you are not alone. Eating disorder charity beat has estimated that about 1.6 million people in the UK are affected.

Eating problems can affect anyone, regardless of background. Anorexia and bulimia are more common in women, but many men have eating problems too. Because eating problems are often associated with young women, it can be harder for men and older people to seek help. Specialist organisations, like Men Get Eating Disorders Too and beat’s adult helpline, can provide support.

Difficult life experiences

Often, 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 very close to you, or serious family problems such as your parents getting divorced. Or it could be particular 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. Other people may not understand this, even if they are close friends or family members, and to them the eating problem may seem to have appeared suddenly, without any obvious cause.

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

Your problem with eating can often be caused or made worse by childhood experiences. For example, if your parents were particularly strict, you may have begun to use food as a way of gaining more control over your life. Other people in your family may be dieting, over-eating or experiencing an eating problem, and this can have an impact on you too.

You may find that your family may have difficulty understanding your eating problems. This may place additional pressure on you and in some cases make the problem worse. If you are able to, you might want to show them the section How can friends and family help?

Personality traits

There is no specific type of person who can develop an eating problem, but if you have some of the following characteristics you may be more vulnerable:

  • perfectionism – wanting everything you do 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.

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 like depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder or body dysmorphic disorder. It 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.

Eating problems are also sometimes 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.

If you are losing a lot of weight or are becoming physically unwell because of your eating problem, you may have thoughts about death or suicidal feelings. You may 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. 

Social pressure

Most of us are affected by social and cultural pressure, even if we’re not always aware of it. This includes messages about our bodies and how we should look. Images in films and magazines, things we read online, adverts and peer pressure often tell us that women should be thin and men should be muscular and strong.

These kinds of idealised body shapes are not actually achievable by most people, and often these images have been deliberately manipulated to have a particular effect on us (for example to make us want to buy a product, watch a film or click a link).

Being constantly exposed to this kind of social pressure can make you feel that you are not good enough, and can have an impact on your own body image and self-esteem.

If you develop an eating problem, it’s likely that social pressure isn’t the only cause. But because there is so much cultural importance placed on appearance, you may find that your weight or how you look becomes the focus of bad feelings. You may associate being thin with positive qualities, like health, willpower or success. If you are overweight, this pressure can make you feel even worse about your own body and add to emotional problems.

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