What causes eating problems?

There is no single cause of eating problems, and this may make it hard to understand why it has become an issue for you. The causes of your eating problem may be complex and confusing, and entirely different from the causes of the next person’s eating problem. The following will cover difficult life experiences, family issues, personality traits, physical and mental health problems, and social pressures as possible explanations for your eating problem.

Who can be affected by an eating problem?

While you may feel that an eating problem is unusual or shameful, you are not alone.

Eating problems can affect anyone, regardless of age, sex, or background. While eating problems are most common in women, many men have eating problems too. Unfortunately, because eating problems are often associated with women, especially young women, it can be harder for men and older people to seek support for their eating problems.

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, divorce or serious family problems. It could also be 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 a major life change, 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, as they may not experience the major life change to the same degree as you do, even if they are close friends or family members. As a result, to others, your 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 eating problems can be caused or made worse by childhood experiences. For example, if your parents were particularly strict, or home didn’t feel like a safe or consistent place, you may have begun to use food as a way of gaining more control over your life. If people in your family had very high expectations of you, you may have developed personality traits like perfectionism and self-criticism that can make you vulnerable to eating problems. Alternatively, if people in your family were dieting, over-eating or experiencing an eating problem, that may also make you vulnerable to eating problems.

You may find that your family has difficulty understanding your eating problems. This may place additional pressure on you and in some cases make the eating problem worse. If you are able to, and it is safe for you to do so, you may want to show them the ‘How can friends and family help?’ section.

Personality traits

There is no specific type of person who develops an eating problem. However, people with eating problems often share common personality traits which make them more vulnerable to eating problems, for example:

  • 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 as a way of feeling in control.

Eating problems can begin because you experience a mental disorder such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder or body dysmorphic disorder. These mental disorders can be linked to feelings of low self-esteem, worthlessness or powerlessness, and you may turn to eating as a way of dealing with those feelings, making you vulnerable to developing an eating problem. Having an eating problem can also cause you to experience these mentioned mental disorders.

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. Films, magazines, social media, adverts and peer pressure constantly tell us that women should be thin and men should be muscular and strong.

All of us are affected by social pressures, even if we’re not always aware of it. There are significant social pressures towards thinness, especially for women, expressed through films, magazines, social media, and adverts. As all of us are affected by these social, it is likely that these pressures will reach us through our family and our peers as well.

The of idealized body shape is 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 buy a product, watch a film or click a link. Despite knowing this, being constantly exposed to the social pressures towards thinness can make one feel that they are not good enough, and can have an negative impact on body image and self-esteem.

Although social pressures probably don’t cause eating problems, they may contribute to or maintain them. As there is so much social importance placed on appearance, you may find yourself comparing yourself to the unrealistic images and feeling bad about yourself as a result. You may associate thinness with positive qualities, such as fame, fortune and success, and even begin to evaluate yourself based on your weight and appearance. If you are overweight, this social pressure toward thinness can make you feel even worse about your own body and cause significant emotional distress.

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