Two young women sit opposite each other at a wooden table in a restaurant. They are both looking at something on one of their smart phones, which is lying flat on the table between them,

A guide for young people Eating problems

Everyone has a different relationship with food and eating, but if yours is taking over your life, then you might have an eating problem. But you’re not alone; we have advice and information on where you can get help and support.

What is an eating problem?

Everyone eats in different ways. You might eat loads one day, be less hungry another day, or go through phases of wanting to eat more or less healthily. That’s completely normal.

But sometimes the way we feel about food and eating can become a problem. Some signs that you may have a problem include:

  • focussing a lot on controlling what or how much you eat
  • having urges to get rid of the food from your body
  • feeling unable to stop yourself from eating
  • using food to manage your emotions
  • feeling guilty for enjoying food

Eating problems are common and they can affect anyone with any body shape or lifestyle, regardless of gender, culture, age or ethnicity.

Some people mistakenly think that eating disorders only affect girls, but this isn’t true. Studies suggest roughly 25% of people affected by eating disorders are male.

Instagram artwork by @allbodiesart. On top of a light green square it reads in capitals: 'My body is good', with a list in lower case describing how your body is good regardless of your doubts.

Instagram artwork by @allbodiesart. On top of a light green square it reads in capitals: 'My body is good', with a list in lower case describing how your body is good regardless of your doubts.

What causes eating problems?

Many things can cause eating problems. 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 out of control. Some eating problems might be triggered by other mental health conditions. Some autistic people also struggle with certain textures or types of food, which can be a symptom of a condition called ARFID.

Images we see in the media or on social media can make us feel we have to look a certain way, or be a certain weight, which can cause us to change the way we eat. But there's no "right" or "wrong" way to look - everyone's body is different.

Struggling with food or eating is never the fault of the person going through it and anyone experiencing problems around food deserves to get better.

If your eating problem is having a really big impact on your life, a doctor might diagnose you with an eating disorder like anorexia or bulimia or other eating disorders (see ‘Different types of eating problems’ below for more information).

A girl with curly hair sitting in a cafe. She is looking away and smiling beside a window.
All through my childhood, I had no complications with eating or food. However, I developed an eating disorder around the age of 13 and was treated at the age of 15 by a CAMHS eating disorder clinic.
Caitlin, 16

Symptoms of eating problems

Here are some examples of eating behaviours that you may be struggling with:

  • losing your appetite
  • eating when not hungry or eating to cope with negative feelings
  • obsessing about your body shape (being ‘too fat’, or ‘not muscly enough’)
  • eating only certain types of foods or following fad/extreme diets
  • being afraid of gaining weight
  • constantly thinking about food and finding it hard to think about anything else
  • dramatic weight loss or gain, or trying to gain a lot of muscle
  • making yourself sick or using laxatives (drugs that make you poo more) to get rid of food from your body
  • 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
  • feeling like eating is bad or that you should feel guilty for eating
  • wanting to eat but not being able to bring yourself to eat
  • limiting the amount that you eat to help you feel more control of certain situations
  • feeling worried about eating certain types of food
  • exercising a lot more than usual or feeling like you have to exercise after you’ve eaten
A father and son sitting at a table with hot drinks and serious facial expressions.

If you’re struggling with any of these symptoms, or any other issues around eating, it’s a good idea to talk to someone you trust about how you’re feeling. You might think you know what having an eating disorder looks like, but people might experience different symptoms or issues with their eating problems. Also your weight or appearance does not determine whether you have a problem, and it’s important to remember that eating problems can affect anyone, no matter their age, appearance, race, gender or identity.

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. This is why it is so important to speak to someone if you or a friend are struggling with eating to get the right help to recover. It might feel really difficult, but you can get through it and you deserve to get better.

Read our tips on reaching out for help

Different types of eating problems

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, a doctor might diagnose you with an eating disorder.

Below are some common eating disorders.

People with anorexia nervosa (sometimes just called anorexia) generally try to keep their weight low by limiting how much food they eat, doing too much exercise, or both. They may have “rules” about what they eat, or when and where they eat. And they may think they are larger than they are, and worry about gaining weight.

Find out more about anorexia nervosa

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, you may see eating as a chore, 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. People with BED might also go to extreme lengths to get food such as eating food that has been thrown away or that doesn’t belong to them.

Unlike bulimia, people with binge-eating disorder don’t usually “purge” afterwards (try to get rid of any food in their body).

Read this blog from Holly, 18, about her experience of binge-eating disorder and what helps her.

Four young people playing table football.
Remember that it’s not your fault. Binge-eating disorder is a real, serious issue. You are not weak, you are not incapable of control, you are just a normal person who is suffering from a mental illness, and that is nothing to be ashamed of.

Bulimia is a type of mental health condition called an eating disorder. People with bulimia can get into a cycle of “binge-eating” (over-eating) and “purging” (trying to control your weight by making yourself sick, using laxatives, or over-exercising).

Although many of us will eat a bit more than usual on occasion, this is different to bingeing. Bingeing is often very distressing, people do not feel in control of it and they might eat things that they would usually avoid. It is usually a way of dealing with difficult feelings and emotions, and is often followed by a desire to purge. People may feel trapped in a cycle of bingeing and purging.

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.

Find out more about bulimia nervosa

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.

OSFED is an umbrella term and people experiencing it might have very different symptoms. 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 disorder – 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 cannot stop themselves from eating non-food items that have no nutritional value, such as soap, chalk or dirt. Most people with pica will also eat regular food items.

No matter what you're going through, you deserve support

  • You might not feel like your problem with eating fits any of these descriptions, but this does not mean that you are any less deserving of support. If you feel like you have a problem with eating, speak to a trusted adult to get help and support.

    It’s important to remember that eating disorders can affect anyone no matter their age, race, gender, identity, background or appearance and that anyone can access support for eating problems.

Close up of three young people talking and smiling while in the park.
My eating disorder felt deeply ingrained in my life and intertwined with who I was, and I believed I would be nothing without it. Fortunately, I found help outside traditional care routes through online services, a local LGBT charity, and dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT).

Alongside this, I taught myself to cook, which was vital in changing how I viewed food. The voice slowly became quieter.
Charlie, 20
A girl with curly hair sits with her hand on her chin thinking, while a boy sits beside her wearing a grey jacket.
Every eating disorder is different, and not everybody experiences the same symptoms and experiences, so whatever your experience is, please know that it’s valid. You should always listen to advice from any medical professionals or specialists as they are trained to help and support you in the best way possible.
Beth, 16
Three young people sitting and talking together in a livingroom.
Being around unfamiliar foods and eating dinner daily with my extended family, most of whom I had never met before, was very difficult. As I have lived in London my whole life, and am no longer fluent in my mother tongue, I felt disconnected from the traditional Gujarati culture and attitudes. In India, having an eating disorder was another thing that made me feel even more alien.
Kari, 24

What to do about eating problems

Get support early

The best way to recover from an eating problem is to get support early. Although this can be scary, there is help available and you can recover.

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 with eating disorders, and they tell us that talking about it was the first step on their road to recovery.

Avoid social media accounts that make you feel bad

Some social media accounts can glamourise eating problems through the content they post. These can be really damaging and unhelpful for your recovery. Although it can be hard, try to replace them with more positive accounts. Read our page on social media and mental health for more advice.

Speak to your GP for advice

Rebuilding your relationship with food can be challenging, but your doctor can help you get the support you need. They might suggest talking therapies that can 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.

Getting help for an eating problem

In England, young people under the age of 18 can refer themselves to community eating disorder services, although some services have suspended self-referral due to high demand. You can find your nearest eating disorder support service via the NHS website.

The charity Beat has more information on how to get help in their guide to getting treatment for an eating disorder.

Help and treatment for an eating disorder

The Nest online support group

  • Sharing your experiences with others can help you to feel less alone, find support and get better.

    The Nest is a welcoming online space for anyone who has (or thinks they have) an eating disorder. The sessions are run and moderated by Beat staff, and offer a confidential and safe space to share your experiences with other people in similar situations.

    They run every Tuesday from 6.45-7.45pm and you can attend as often or as little as you like.

A boy wearing a grey t-shirt sits beside a window while using Facebook on his laptop.
If you don’t feel comfortable talking to your GP about your binge eating, you can speak to or email the charity Beat about the feelings that make you want to binge.

This really helped me understand that my binge eating was something that I could get help for.
Jade, 23
Instagram artwork by @Crazyheadcomics. A windy road sits on a spotty green background with different points picked out on the road.

Instagram artwork by @Crazyheadcomics. A windy road sits on a spotty green background with different points picked out on the road.

  • 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.

Real stories about recovering from eating problems

Play Video: I never thought I had an eating disorder I never thought I had an eating disorder

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 nervosa.

Watch Hope tell her story in her own words.

Watch time: ~7mins

Supporting 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 that are causing the changes to their eating. Remember anyone can have an eating disorder, so make sure to be supportive if your friend opens up to you.
  • Encourage your friend to speak to their GP or a trusted adult so they can find out what professional support is there for them. If you have support services at school, college or university, they will also be able to direct you to available help.
  • Let them know about organisations and charities, like Beat, who can support them with their eating problems.
  • Don’t comment on how much or how little they are eating as this can damage their recovery or make it more challenging for them to talk openly.
  • Try to organise activities with them that aren’t centred on food, such as watching a film or playing video games.
  • 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. Have a look at our guide to supporting a friend with their mental health for more advice.
  • 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.
Two young people sit on a sofa with the person on the left putting an arm around the other. They both are looking at each other while talking.
If you see your friend restricting at mealtimes, or they seem to be obsessing over food and exercise, you don’t have to confront them about it yourself. In fact, if you were to, they may deny it and attempt to hide it even more. Instead, tell a responsible adult that your friend trusts (e.g. a parent or teacher) that you think something might be wrong.

Remember that by telling an adult that you think there might be a problem, you are not being a bad friend - in fact, you are being the best friend you could possibly be by helping them and spotting the signs of a relapse early before it spirals out of control. Even if your friend does not see you helping them as a good thing immediately, I promise when they begin to recover they will really appreciate it.
Beth, 15

More help and advice

We have information and advice on a range of subjects, which you may find helpful.

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Where to get help

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