What is an eating problem?
Lots of people have different eating habits. You might eat loads one day, be less hungry another day, or go through phases of wanting to eat more or less healthily. But that doesn’t mean you have an eating problem.
But if you’re focussing a lot on controlling what or how much you eat, or if you have urges to get rid of the food from your body, these are signs you could have a problem.
Eating problems are common and they can affect people with any body shape or lifestyle, regardless of gender, age or ethnicity. Singers Demi Lovato and Zayn Malik have both spoken openly about having eating disorders and what they did to get better.
All kinds of things can cause eating problems or disorders. You might develop an eating problem when things don’t feel right in other parts of your life, especially if you’re feeling worried, stressed or feeling out of control. Images we see online and in the media can add to the feeling that we have to look a certain way, or be a certain weight, which may not be healthy for our body. But there's no "right" or "wrong" way to look - everyone's body is different.
Symptoms of eating problems
If any of the symptoms below are affecting your everyday life, it’s a good idea to talk to someone about how you’re feeling. You might have an idea about what an eating disorder looks like, but not everyone experiences the same difficult eating behaviours, and your weight on its own does not determine whether you have a problem.
Being able to control how much or what you eat might give you a feeling of order, but it can lead to more serious issues. If you are worried at all, please reach out for help.
Some eating problems can become serious mental health conditions that need professional help to diagnose and treat. In very serious cases and without the right kind of support and treatment, they can even cause death, which is why it is so important to speak to someone if you are struggling with your eating so that you can get the help you need to recover. It might feel really difficult, but you can get through it and you deserve to get better.
Here are some examples of eating behaviours that you may be struggling with:
- losing appetite
- eating when not hungry
- obsessing about your body shape (e.g. being ‘too fat’, or ‘not muscly enough’)
- eating only certain types of things or following fad diets
- being afraid of gaining weight
- dramatic weight loss or gain
- making yourself sick
- no longer enjoying eating socially or leaving the table quickly (to be sick or hide food)
- focusing on buying or cooking food for others
- feeling secretive about eating
- being secretive about/preoccupied with food
- being self-conscious about eating in front of others
Different types of eating disorders
If you struggle with eating and your relationship with food for some time and it is having an impact on your day-to-day life, you might be diagnosed with an eating disorder.
Below are some common eating disorders.
ARFID stands for ‘avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder’. This used to be known as selective eating disorder. People with ARFID avoid certain foods or types of food, or they may limit how much food they eat. Unlike anorexia, people with ARFID don’t necessarily do this to lose weight.
Common reasons people with ARFID may limit their food intake include:
- Sensory sensitivity – you may struggle with the appearance, smell, texture, temperature or taste of certain foods.
- Limited interest in food – you may not realise when you are hungry in the same way that other people do, or you may simply not enjoy eating.
- Worries about the consequences of eating – you may have had a frightening experience with choking, vomiting, or stomach pain and be afraid that this will happen again. To try and prevent it from happening again, you may stick to what you consider “safe” foods.
Binge-eating disorder is a condition where people regularly eat large quantities of food in a short time and feel like they are not in control of this, or that they are unable to stop. In a binge eating episode, people may eat a lot faster than usual, or eat even though they’re not hungry, and feel embarrassment or shame afterwards. This can be very distressing.
Although binges are often unplanned and catch the person off-guard, sometimes they can be planned, and the person might buy particular types of food to eat.
Unlike bulimia, people with binge-eating disorder don’t usually “purge” afterwards (try to get rid of any food in their body).
Bulimia is an eating disorder where you get into a cycle of “bingeing” (over-eating) and “purging” (trying to control your weight by making yourself sick, or using other ways to get rid of the food in your body).
Although many of us will eat a bit more than usual on occasion, this is different to bingeing. Bingeing is often very distressing and people do not feel in control of it. It is usually a way of dealing with difficult feelings and emotions, and is often followed by a desire to purge.
You may feel that parts of your life are out of control and that purging or restricting calories gives you a sense of control. But bulimia can seriously damage your body, so it's important to get help and find other ways of coping.
Although bulimia is a serious condition, there's lots of help available.
Osfed stands for ‘other specified feeding or eating disorder’. If you experience disordered eating but your symptoms do not neatly fit with the symptoms of anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorder, you may be diagnosed with OSFED. This is very common – in fact, it’s the most common eating disorder.
Some examples of what OSFED might look like include:
- Atypical anorexia –when you experience all the symptoms of anorexia nervosa, but your weight remains in a “normal” range.
- Binge eating disorder (low frequency/limited duration) – where you experience the symptoms of binge eating disorder, but not as often or over as long a period of time.
- Bulimia nervosa (low frequency/limited duration) –where you experience the symptoms of bulimia, but the cycles of bingeing and purging do not happen as often, or do not last for as long.
- Night eating syndrome –where you eat a lot at night even after your dinner, or you wake up in the night to eat.
- Purging syndrome – This is where someone purges, as with bulimia, but it is not part of a binge/purge cycle.
Pica is an eating disorder where someone eats non-food items that have no nutritional value, such as soap, chalk or dirt. Most people with pica will also eat regular food items.
What to do about eating problems
- Talk to someone you trust. If you think you might have an eating disorder, telling someone about it can feel quite hard. But we’ve worked with many young people who have suffered from eating disorders, and they tell us that talking about it was the first step on their road to recovery.
- Speak to your GP for advice. Sometimes learning to eat normally again can be hard work, so your doctor can help you get the support you need. They might suggest talking therapies that you and your family can try, to help you figure out and deal with the issues that have triggered your eating problem. They may also want to measure your weight to assess your BMI (Body Mass Index) – it’s okay to be nervous about this, but just remember they don’t want to judge you, they only want to help.
Our Activists share their advice
"I’d recommend talking to someone you trust about what it is that makes you anxious so that they can support you in managing your intake."
"Avoid apps, accounts or websites that contribute to your negative body image and your relationship with eating."
"Looking at your body every day might be hard, but try to see and remember all the things your body does for you."
This is Hope Virgo's story of recovery:
Hope Virgo struggled with expressing her emotions from a young age. As a teenager, she began to eat less and less, until a point came where her heart was close to failing and she was admitted to hospital to be treated for anorexia.
Watch time ~7mins
How to support a friend with an eating problem
- If you’re worried about a friend who’s struggling with their eating, listen to them. They might have difficult things going on in their life which are causing the changes to their eating.
- Encourage your friend to speak to their GP so they can find out what professional support is there for them.
- Remember, if you are worried about them, you don’t have to keep their secret - if they don’t get the help they need things can get much worse for them very quickly. Telling a family member, teacher or someone else you trust might feel hard for both of you, but it’s important because the quicker your friend gets support, the more likely they are to recover.
- Look after yourself. It can be really hard supporting someone who is going through a tough time and this can affect your own wellbeing and mental health. Make sure you also have someone you can talk to about how you’re feeling, like a family member or trusted friend.
When meeting up, you can do an activity like a trip to the beach so that it's not centred on food. This can stop your friend feeling stressed if they're struggling with eating out.
Support your friend through their journey. By encouraging them, you can help your friend on the road to recovery.
When meeting up, you can do an activity like a trip to the beach so that it's not centred on food. This can stop your friend feeling stressed if they're struggling with eating out
Support your friend through their journey. By encouraging them, you can help your friend on the road to recovery
Real stories about recovering from eating problems
Here are real stories and advice from young people who have struggled with their eating.
Get help now
Where to get help
If you're not sure where to turn to for support right now, these services can help you.
Offers information and support for anybody affected by eating disorders.
One-to-one web chat available.
Enter your postcode in the HelpFinder to see what eating disorder support is available in your area.
Information on helpline accessibility and confidentiality available here.
- Opening times:
- 365 days a year - weekdays (9am - 8pm); weekends (4pm - 8pm)
Talk ED is the new name for Anorexia and Bulimia Care. Talk ED offers support to anyone affected by eating disorders.
Talk ED also has real stories, blogs and advice from young people with lived experience.
You can book a 1:1 support call here to speak to someone if you're struggling with an eating disorder or if you're worried about someone else via phone, video call, or online chat.
- Opening times:
- 10am - 5pm, Monday - Friday
Provides information about local counselling and advice services for young people aged 12-25.
You can find local services on their website.