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

Types of eating problems

This section describes the most common kinds of eating disorders:

You may not have – or want – a medical diagnosis of any of these disorders. But it may still be helpful to look at this section to identify some of the harmful behaviours you have and think about ways that you can move away from them.

Bulimia nervosa

Bulimia is one of the most common eating problems. If you experience bulimia, you may find that you eat large amounts of food all in one go, often because you are feeling upset or worried. This is called bingeing.

You may then feel guilty or ashamed after bingeing, and want to get rid of the food you have eaten. This is called purging.

These are some of the feelings and behaviours you might experience, and some of the physical effects you might notice in your body:

How you might feel
  • ashamed and guilty
  • that you hate your body, or that you are fat
  • scared of being found out by family and friends
  • depressed or anxious
  • lonely, especially if no one else knows about your eating problems
  • very low and upset
  • like your mood changes quickly or suddenly
  • like you’re stuck in a cycle of feeling out of control and trying to get control back
  • numb, or like feelings are blocked out by bingeing or purging.
What you might do
  • eat lots of food in one go (binge)
  • try to get rid of food you’ve eaten by making yourself sick, or using laxatives (purge)
  • starve yourself in between binges
  • eat in secret
  • crave certain types of food
  • eat foods you think are bad for you when you binge
  • exercise lots to try to make up for bingeing.
What might happen to your body
  • staying roughly the same weight, or going from being overweight to underweight quite often
  • being dehydrated, which can cause bad skin
  • if you are a woman, your periods might become irregular or stop altogether
  • if you make yourself sick, your stomach acid can harm your teeth and you can get a sore throat
  • if you use laxatives, you could develop irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), stretched colon, constipation and heart disease.

Because your weight will usually stay roughly the same, people are less likely to notice the illness or offer help without you asking. This can make it harder to get support even when you feel ready to try to get better.

When I was at the worst phases of bulimia, and realised that it was so damaging to me, I tried to reach out, but no one responded to me in the way that I needed. I tried and tried to tell people that this was not OK, but all they saw was a diet gone wrong [and that]...I’d sort it out by myself.

Anorexia nervosa

Anorexia means you don’t allow yourself to eat enough food to get the energy and nutrition you need to stay physically healthy. Sometimes people assume that anorexia is about slimming and dieting, but it is often connected to very low self-esteem, negative self-image and feelings of intense distress.

These are some of the feelings and behaviours you might experience, and some of the physical effects you might notice in your body:

How you might feel
  • like you can’t think about anything other than food
  • like you want to disappear
  • like you have to be perfect
  • lonely, especially if no one knows about your eating problems
  • like eating is the same as losing control
  • like you are hiding things from your family and friends
  • anxious
  • like you are fat and your weight loss isn’t enough, even if other people think you are underweight
  • frightened of putting on weight
  • angry if someone challenges you
  • tired and disinterested in things
  • depressed or suicidal
  • a high or sense of achievement from denying yourself food or over-exercising.
What you might do
  • reduce your food intake or stop eating altogether
  • count calories obsessively
  • hide food or secretly throw it away
  • avoid foods that you feel are dangerous, like food with high amounts of calories or fat
  • use drugs that reduce your appetite or speed up your digestion
  • be obsessed with losing weight
  • make yourself sick or use laxatives
  • exercise compulsively
  • wear baggy clothes to cover up weight loss and keep warm
  • compete to eat less than other people
  • make rules about food, like listing ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods or only eating things that are a certain colour.
What might happen to your body
  • weighing much less than you should (at least 15% below a healthy weight for your age and height)
  • being physically underdeveloped (this can happen if your problem starts before puberty)
  • feeling weak and moving slowly
  • feeling very cold
  • you may find it very hard to concentrate
  • hair thinning or falling out
  • fine, fuzzy hair on your arms and face (this is called ‘lanugo’)
  • losing interest in sex, or not being able to have – or enjoy – sex
  • you could have bone density problems like osteoporosis, making your bones fragile
  • if you are a woman, your periods might become irregular or stop altogether.

Mine started when I started starving myself as a means of control. Everything else had been taken out of my control, but no one could force me to eat. I'd enjoy and crave the feeling of my stomach being so empty I had cramps, felt sick and became so weak I couldn't sit up.

Binge eating disorder

Binge eating disorder means you might feel like you can’t stop yourself from eating, even if you want to. This is sometimes described as having a food addiction or compulsive eating. If you experience binge eating disorder, you may have come to rely on food for emotional support, or be using food to mask difficult feelings.

These are some of the feelings and behaviours you might experience, and some of the physical effects you might notice on your body:

How you might feel
  • out of control
  • embarrassed or ashamed
  • lonely and empty
  • very low, even worthless
  • unhappy about your body, especially if you are gaining weight
  • stressed or anxious.
What you might do
  • pick at food all day, or eat large amounts at once (bingeing)
  • eat without really thinking about it, such as by regularly eating large amounts of snack foods while watching the TV or reading
  • hide how much you’re eating
  • regularly eat unhealthy food, for example things that are high in sugar, fat or salt
  • eat until you feel uncomfortably full or sick
  • try to diet, but find it hard to stick to it
  • eat for comfort when you feel stressed, upset or unhappy.
What might happen to your body
  • putting on weight
  • health problems associated with being overweight, such as diabetes, high blood pressure or joint and muscle pain
  • feeling sick
  • experiencing sugar highs and crashes (having bursts of energy followed by feeling very tired)
  • breathlessness.

I was badly depressed and found myself becoming a chocaholic. I just couldn’t go a day without it […] I have now cut down my addiction, but it’s the worst thing ever not being in control.

Eating disorder not otherwise specified (EDNOS)

Eating disorder not otherwise specified (EDNOS) is a diagnosis that is becoming more common. If your doctor diagnoses you with EDNOS, it means you meet some but not all of the criteria for an eating disorder like bulimia or anorexia. For example, you may be starving yourself but be close to what is considered a healthy weight for your age and height. Or you may binge and purge every month, but not regularly enough for a diagnosis of bulimia.

EDNOS can be a confusing diagnosis. It can seem like you are being told your problems are not as serious as other eating disorders, but this is not true. Any eating problem can be difficult to deal with, and the impact on your life can feel really overwhelming.

I was assessed by my local [eating disorder] service, was given a diagnosis of EDNOS. I then managed to get my eating back on track, and have done since then. I continue to work on the feelings with the help of my therapist, and am very much in recovery.

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