Eating Difficulties

What is an eating difficulty?

An eating difficulty is any relationship with food that feels problematic. While fluctuations in eating patterns or habits are normal, eating difficulties can be significant and cause substantial interference in people’s lives. A key thing about eating difficulties is that anyone, regardless of race, weight, gender or age, can be affected by it.

Here are some signs that eating difficulties are of concern:

  • Obsession with body weight or shape
  • Intense fear of gaining weight
  • Strong conviction that a slim body shape is absolutely crucial for self-acceptance
  • Weight loss, failure to gain weight, or fluctuating weight
  • Tiredness, lack of energy and strength
  • Obsession with and/or playing with food
  • Being very selective about what to eat
  • A preoccupation with the preparation of food for others to eat
  • Thinking or talking about food all the time
  • Over-exercising and being worried if they are not able to exercise
  • Avoiding eating with other people
  • Secrecy around food
  • Regularly going to the toilet after eating or during meals
  • Hoarding food
  • Fear of losing control of eating
  • Appearing anxious or stressed at meal times about food and amounts of food
  • Menstruation (periods) stopping or not starting
  • Lack of balance in an individual’s life, e.g. not stopping exercise despite injuries
  • Dieting and avoiding certain food groups
  • Purging behaviours, such as vomiting or use of laxatives
  • Excessive exercise
  • Distorted image of one’s body weight and shape
  • Conflict with anyone who tries to encourage eating

What types of eating difficulties are there?

Most eating disorders typically stem from similar desires to look a certain way, gain a sense of control, or increase self-worth. Generally speaking, eating disorders can be broken down into different categories including:

Bulimia Nervosa

Bulimia nervosa is characterised by the regular occurrence of binge-eating and unhealthy compensatory behaviours.

  • A binge is a discrete instance where someone eats an amount of food that is definitely larger than average, in a way that feels out of control and causes significant distress.
  • Unhealthy compensatory behaviours are any action that aims to control weight after a binge. This may include excessive exercising, vomiting, laxative use, restricting food intake, fasting or using illicit drugs or alcohol.

Other associated symptoms may be:

  • Intense fear of gaining weight
  • Eating in secrecy or hiding eating patterns from others
  • Feelings of self-disgust or shame
  • Inaccurate perception of one’s body weight or shape.
  • Rigid food rules

Binge-Eating Disorder

Binge eating disorder is characterised by the regular occurrence (at least once per week) of objective binges. Binges are discrete instances where someone eats an amount of food that is definitely larger than average, in a way that feels out of control and causes significant distress. Other associated symptoms may be:

  • Intense fear of gaining weight
  • Frequently eating until uncomfortably full
  • Eating large amounts of food when not physically hungry
  • Eating in secrecy or hiding eating patterns from others
  • Feelings of self-disgust or shame
  • Inaccurate perception of one’s body weight or shape.

Rigid food rules

Anorexia Nervosa

An individual with anorexia nervosa may demonstrate a range of the following symptoms:

  • Restriction of energy intake (leading to low body weight)
  • Intense fear of gaining weight
  • Inaccurate perception of one’s body weight or shape.
  • Rigid food rules
  • Compensatory behaviours (such as exercising, vomiting or laxative use) after meals
  • Excessive exercising

Helping yourself

The following is a list of some things that you can try that may help you manage your eating difficulties:

  • Spend time around positive and supportive people who are comfortable with themselves and their bodies, and who have a healthy relationship with food. Spend time with people that possess qualities that you admire and aspire to develop within yourself.
  • Think about the people that you like and admire and what it is about them you like. Is it their size? Or is it something greater? Do you like your friends because they are thin? Or do you like them because they are fun or interesting or possess other great qualities?
  • Think about your own ideas of what beauty is. If they don’t seem 100% legitimate to you, question and re-evaluate them.
  • Take up a hobby. Is there something that you used to love doing but have stopped? Is there something you have always wanted to try but have let your fear get in the way?
  • Talk to other people recovering from eating disorders or people who have already recovered. Mutual support can be great and motivating, and seeing someone else make progress or enjoying life might help to keep you inspired too.
  • Keep something around where you can see it that will remind you of why you want to recover (something like a collage, or change the background on your phone to something that inspires you).
  • Read recovery-oriented books. These can help inspire and keep you motivated.
  • Follow body-positive accounts on Instagram (e.g. “Nudenutritionist” or “trustyourbodyproject”).
  • Keep a “recovery journal” and fill it with positive and affirming thoughts. Write about why you want to recover, what your eating disorder gives and takes away from you, where you will be in 5 or 10 years if you stick with your eating disorder instead of giving it up, and/or anything else that will help to get and keep you motivated.
  • If body image is something you are really struggling with, go out one day and notice the diversity of shapes around you. Try not to only focus on the thinnest people and block the rest out.
  • Hospitalization in an eating disorder clinic or hospital ward may also be helpful when it is medically or emotionally needed.

You may also find the following national and international organisations helpful in learning more about eating disorders and accessing further resources:

Getting professional help

If you believe that you or someone you care about needs additional assistance to manage eating difficulties the best person to speak to is your GP, as they will be able to advise you of referrals to a psychologist or psychiatrist. Consultation with a dietician may also be of benefit.

The following services may also be of assistance:

  • The Butterfly Foundation This is an organisation dedicated to assisting individuals with eating difficulties and their families. The Butterfly Foundation also have a national helpline available at 1800 33 4673
  • Headspace – provides counselling for ages 12-25

In case of emergency, the following services are available: