What are eating difficulties?

An eating disorder is a serious mental illness that involves a person developing thoughts, feelings and eating behaviour which can take over a person’s life and make them very unwell. Eating disorders can involve eating too much or too little and becoming really unhappy, worried and preoccupied with things such as weight and shape.

It’s important to remember that lots of people worry about what they look like and from time to time might be unhappy with their weight or shape, but for someone with an eating disorder these thoughts and feelings can have a serious impact on their life. It can impact on physical health, education and general daily living, such as hanging out with friends, spending time with family, going out and taking part in activities.


 There is no one cause of an eating disorder. Young people who develop eating difficulties and disorders often tell us that eating or not eating can be a way of coping with feelings of sadness, worry and stress. Sometimes life stressors such as exams, bullying, friendship or family relationship difficulties and bereavement or loss may play a part in how someone copes or feels about themselves. There are also some personal factors such as having low self-esteem, experiencing anxiety or depression, setting high standards and being perfectionistic and identifying as LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Transsexual) are sometimes associated with people who develop eating disorders. However, experiencing any one of these things does not necessarily mean that someone will develop an eating disorder or difficulty.

There are many different types of eating disorders, all of them are serious

All eating disorders are treatable, and a full recovery is possible.

It is important to notice that you might be having a difficulty and to ask for help as soon as possible

Health services take eating disorders very seriously and they will make sure that you are seen soon as possible. 

There are different types of eating disorders see more information in the boxes below:

Anorexia nervosa (often simply called anorexia) is an eating disorder where people worry about their weight, want to lose weight, and eat less and less food. People with anorexia may do different things to get rid of any food from their body.

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.

Here are some signs that there might be a problem and it’s time to get help: 

  •  Constant thinking or worrying about food, calories, weight gain or your shape. You might notice that it is hard to concentrate on other things
  • Reducing your food in order to lose weight and setting yourself strict rules about what you can or cannot eat
  • Trying to do other things to lose weight, such as lots of exercise, vomiting taking laxatives (medication to help you go to the toilet) or slimming pills
  • You might become tired and more emotional (tearful, irritable)
  • If you’re a girl, your periods might stop
  • Other people might start noticing and commenting that they are worried about you




Not everyone who has an eating disorder will experience all the signs and symptoms. Also, if you are experiencing some of these signs and symptoms this does necessarily mean that you have an eating disorder, but it is important to get help and advice.

Helpful to know

It is common for people with eating difficulties to not see that there is a real problem. You may not understand why others are concerned or you might disagree that there is a problem altogether. This may make you feel angry and frustrated.

Try to be honest about how you are feeling with those around you. The quicker you can get help for your difficulties, the better the outcome.

Page source Young Minds see below for contact details


Accessibility tools