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.

How can I help myself?

Living with – and recovering from – eating problems is really challenging. You have to think about food daily and live in your changing body. But there are lots of ways that you can help yourself cope with these challenges.

Don't give up: a letter to myself about my eating disorder​

Watch Rose Anne read a letter to herself about recovery.

Recovery means different things to different people. It might mean that you don't ever have an eating problem thought or behaviour again. Or it might mean you do still have them but they don't happen as often and they have less impact on your life.

Your thoughts about how you perceive your relationship with food, and whether you want to recover, might change over time too.​ At times you might feel that you don't have a problem, or that your behaviours are actually helpful to you. Your eating problem may feel comforting, safe or even exhilarating. And you may feel scared of the changes that come that will with recovery. For example you might feel:

  • afraid of losing or putting on weight
  • anxious about losing control
  • that your eating problem is such a big part of your life that you aren't sure who you are without it.​

Whatever recovery looks like to you, it can take a long time to get there – even when you feel ready to try. You may have to think in years rather than weeks and months. If you have tried to recover before, or have relapsed, you might start to feel as if you are completely beyond help. But it is possible to feel better, even if it takes a long time.

We hope that the information on this page, and our page treatment and support, will help you think about some positive steps you could take.

"It has taken me a long time to effect any change for the better in myself, and I am still a long, long way from where I want to be, but when I finally came to terms with the implications on my life of my condition I was able to start at least planning how to get better."

Eating problems can feel very difficult to talk about, for many reasons. But although people around you may find eating problems difficult to understand, they will usually want to help however they can.

If you are finding it hard to talk, you could try writing things down. Some people find that writing things in a letter for example can help get thoughts out more clearly. You might also find it helpful to show people our information about eating problems to help them understand more about them.

"Be open with the people closest to you; they may not completely understand, but they can help."

Because lots of people think that only young women get eating problems, you may find it more difficult to talk about your experiences if you are a man, or an older women. But lots of men and older women also have eating problems. Watch this documentary about men's experiences of eating problems.

Also you may find your body changes faster than your mental health. As you start to look healthier, you may feel worse. Other people may think you are recovered when actually you are still finding things very hard.​ Keeping up the conversation about how you're feeling, with people you trust, can help.

Read Mark's blog about his experience of eating problems, 'Not just a girls' disease'.

Eating problems can make you feel ashamed, isolated and misunderstood. It can really help to talk to people who understand. You can look for peer support online or face-to-face. These charities can help you find suitable peer support for people with eating problems:

(See our pages on peer support for more information and sources of support.​)

It's very common to go back to old thoughts and behaviours, especially around times when you are very stressed. It can he helpful to identify times when you might be more at risk of your eating problems returning. They might be:

  • times when you gain or lose weight or your body changes shape
  • going on a diet
  • going on holiday
  • pregnancy and after giving birth
  • high stress situations such as exams, getting married/civil partnered, going through a break-up or moving house.

Think about your early warning signs and what you can do to help prevent things getting worse. Early warning signs could be:

  • eating too much or too little
  • bargaining with yourself about food and eating
  • wanting to purge
  • fixating on food and thinking about it all the time
  • checking your body or weighing yourself more.

Most people will have setbacks in their recovery. But after each setback you may find you understand more about yourself and your eating problem. It's important to try and be gentle with yourself and accept relapses as part of a long, but achievable, process of change.

"As long as I was still taking baby steps, i.e. occasionally trying a small piece of something new that wasn't too dissimilar to things I already ate, then I was still working towards better health."

Lots of people don't understand what it's like to have an eating problem. Some people may feel it's ok to comment on your body, your weight, or how much (and what) you are eating. They may think they are saying something positive, without realising that it might be difficult for you to hear. This can be really hard to cope with.​

Read Susanna's blog​ 'but you look fine to me' about dealing with eating problems when you look 'normal'.​​

What helps or hurts is different for everyone. It might help to try and explain to family and friends how you feel and what a more helpful or supportive response would be. But you can't always stop people from saying unhelpful things. It could be a good idea to think about how you will deal with the things people might say.

Read Eleanor's blog about dealing with eating problems at work, and how other people can help.

"Often I am ashamed of admitting I have my disorder …because I am scared that people will not believe me or think it's serious, even though bulimia has dominated my life since age 15."

Recovery will not mean putting on weight for everybody. But for some people this is an incredibly difficult challenge to live with. Some people have found these tips have worked for them:

  • ​Write down the reasons why you want to recover and look at them when things feel difficult.
  • Take all of your clothes that don't fit to a charity shop, or sell them online. Treat yourself to some new clothes in sizes you feel confident in.
  • Try not to spend too much time looking in mirrors or checking your body.
  • Avoid weighing yourself if possible.
  • Write down all the healthy physical changes that are happening in your body.
  • Talk to other people – have a rant or share your worries with someone who understands.
  • Try not to make comparisons or spend too much time looking at pictures of people in magazines or online.
  • Remember that these pictures are usually filtered or photoshopped.

"Distractions after a meal are key for me! Going online, watching a movie, reading, working, etc."

Routines around eating and food can be hard to break. But you might find that making small changes can help. For example:

  • Buy smaller amounts of food if you are worried about overeating.
  • Try to distract yourself whenever you find yourself focusing on your body and weight. It can help to try a new hobby or interest that takes a lot of concentration.
  • Find fun things to distract yourself after meals if you are worried about purging.
  • Try to think of some positive goals that are not related to food or calories.

"I do better with buying food in single servings so I only have around what I'm intending to eat there and then."

There are certain times of year that might trigger difficult thoughts and behaviours. Often these are celebrations that tend to revolve around food and eating with others, like Christmas​ and birthdays.

  • Talk to someone you trust about how you feel and what might make things easier.
  • If possible, find alternative ways to celebrate.
  • Think about things you can do to look after yourself when you are finding things hard.
  • Acknowledge and accept that there might be times where you feel out of control.
  • Be gentle with yourself and don't set your expectations too high.

Ramadan and eating problems

If you are Muslim you may find that Ramadan causes conflicts between your faith and your eating problems and recovery. Some people find that fasting triggers thoughts and behaviours related to their eating problem, especially if they are praised for eating very little. Others find that eating with family and friends during iftar makes them feel out of control.

Although you may be excused from fasting if you have a medical problem, this may make you feel guilty. Other people may not understand why you are not fasting.

Read Habiba's blog on the b-eat website about​ eating disorders and Ramadan.

If you have an eating problem you may find that you spend a lot of time comparing your body to other people's, sometimes without even really realising you are doing it. We are often surrounded by pictures and images – especially on social media.

  • Be aware of how you feel when you are online and adjust the places you visit and the people you follow if you need to. It is ok to take a break from social media, or to adjust your lifestyle, so that this plays less of a part in how you spend your time.
  • Remember that many pictures have been manipulated to make the person look different. Even pictures on social media may have been filtered or photoshopped.
  • Think about how you deal with pictures of yourself. Do they make you feel bad or do you feel you need to change them to hide how you really look?
  • Think about whether you are following anyone whose pictures make you feel bad or trigger problematic thoughts.
  • Unfollow them if you can.
  • Block or avoid any websites that promote eating disorders.
  • Look for positive communities around eating, recovery and body positivity.

Read Juliette's blog about​ the challenges of travelling with an eating disorder, and what helps her cope.​

Be as kind to yourself as you can. Have a look at our information on:

"Be proud of yourself for the smallest steps you make because you're heading in the right direction. If you manage to put a tiny lump of cheese on top of your pasta, praise yourself. If you recognise you are having a bad day, accept it because it's all part of the process."

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.

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