Food plays an essential part in everyday life and changing your eating habits from time to time is normal.
An eating problem is any relationship with food which you find difficult. This could be; restricting what you eat, eating in secret, feeling anxious about eating, emotional eating, purging, eating inedible substances or being scared of eating in public. You don’t have to be over- or under-weight to have a problem with eating.
When food and eating begins to interfere with your everyday life, professional help can make all the difference.
Eating problems vs Eating disorders
An eating problem is any relationship with food that you personally find difficult. These can be difficult to live with and can affect the way that you live your life. For some people an eating problem can be a form of self-harm related to your body image and self-esteem. Others eating problems can arise from phobias of certain foods.
An eating disorder is a medical diagnosis which is based on your eating patterns, medical test, your weight, blood and body mass index (BMI). There are 5 main types of eating disorder; bulimia nervosa, anorexia nervosa, binge eating disorder, other specified feeding or eating disorder and other diagnoses related to disordered eating. It is possible to experience the symptoms of more than one disorder or to experience symptoms which don’t fit into any of these diagnoses.
Other diagnoses related to disordered eating
Rumination disorder – this involves regularly regurgitating your food (without a physical health reason for doing so). You may then re-chew, swallow or spit out this food.
PICA – this is eating inedible substances which have no nutritional value. This could be potentially harmful.
Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID) – a very strong need to avoid food or just certain foods due to their smell, taste or texture. The idea of eating these foods can cause anxiety.
Causes of eating problems
There is no clear cause for eating problems. In most cases the difficulties will arise as a result of a combination of environmental and biological factors. This could include; habits and traits, difficult life experiences, family issues, social pressures, physical and mental health problems, biological and genetic factors or specific triggers or “at risk” times. Sometimes it may be difficult to establish the causes of your eating problems.
Treating eating problems
NICE guidelines suggest that Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) or family therapy are best practice for the psychological treatment of eating problems. However, there are also a number of other approaches which can be helpful, particularly when symptoms/behaviours are milder in nature.
If an eating disorder isn’t treated, it can have a negative impact on someone’s job or schoolwork and can disrupt relationships with family members and friends. The physical effects of an eating disorder can be fatal.
Treatment for eating disorders is available, although recovery can take a long time. It’s important that the person affected wants to get better, and the support of family and friends is invaluable. Treatment usually involves monitoring a person’s physical health while helping them deal with the underlying psychological causes. This may involve:
- using self-help manuals and books, possibly under guidance from a therapist or another healthcare professional
- cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) – therapy that focuses on changing how a person thinks about a situation, which in turn will affect how they act
- interpersonal psychotherapy – a talking therapy that focuses on relationship-based issues
- dietary counselling – a talking therapy to help a person maintain a healthy diet
- psychodynamic therapy or cognitive analytic therapy (CAT) – therapy that focuses on how a person’s personality and life experiences influence their current thoughts, feelings, relationships and behaviour
- family therapy – therapy involving the family discussing how the eating disorder has affected them and their relationships
- medication – for example, a type of antidepressant called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) may be used to treat bulimia nervosa or binge eating