Eating disorders

Early experiences with food and eating

Eating disorders can develop at any age but for this section of the website we interviewed young people up to the age of 25. Eating disorders are most commonly diagnosed in teens. Of the young people we spoke to, some developed an eating disorder after leaving school, at the age of 18/19 but often problems started in the early to mid-teens, between the ages of 11 and 16. This happened around the same time as starting secondary school.

Some of the people we spoke with had very early memories of problems with food, eating and moods and felt they had always had a complicated relationship with food. Some had strong memories of being as young as 8 or 9 when the problems started. Remembering a holiday when she was 8 or younger, Elene said “I remember making myself sick”. 

Those we talked with felt that a number of things could have contributed to them developing eating disorders: puberty and growing up, life events, family relationships, death of a loved one, illness, changing schools, bullying and anxiety, depression and low self-esteem. It wasn’t always clear or important for young people why they developed an eating disorder.

Childhood and family
Difficult relationships with food and eating are often thought to be linked with childhood experiences and family relationships. The people we spoke to who had had troubled childhoods described experiences such as parents divorcing, domestic violence, and mental and physical illness in the family. These experiences were felt to have contributed to their later problems with food. Some had experienced bereavement; losing grandparents or even a parent or a sibling which had a big impact on their lives. 

People whose family members also had an eating disorder wondered whether it could be inherited. 

Some young people said their childhoods had been very happy and stable and that they’d always had good relationships with their parents. They didn’t think there was a family link to them developing an eating disorder.

Descriptions of childhood attitudes to food varied across the people we spoke to. Many said they’d had a very positive attitude to food; they used to enjoy eating and were unaware of any weight concerns. Some said they used to be “fussy” or “picky” but a few had deeper problems; avoiding certain foods or particular textures, not wanting different foods touching on their plate and generally “being funny” about food. These problems were often linked to people making emotional connections to eating and food eating more or less  when upset, for example. 

Often young people’s attitudes were linked to their family’s approach to food. Some people said that they’d been aware of healthy eating, diets and weight from a young age because they had diet and health conscious families. Some felt there had been a focus on their weight since they were a child, either because they were told they were overweight or because of a parent's eating disorder. Sometimes passing comments or jibes about weight would stick to their minds for a long time. 

Some of the focus on weight and dieting came from parents, brothers or sisters.. Annabelle thought that being in control of food was a sign of ‘success’ and says she learnt this from her health conscious dad. Those who had grown up with older brothers and sisters said they were surrounded by talk about weight, appearance and dieting. Some people described irregular and chaotic mealtimes at home, which caused them to take charge of cooking or feeding themselves from a young age. Suzanne described how she “grew up with an abnormal relationship to food”; she didn’t have regular mealtimes at home and learnt to feed herself on snacks.

It’s important to keep in mind that eating disorders are complex mental health problems; they’re not simply about food, eating and weight. In fact, many said the first time they became aware of their own weight or BMI (Body Mass Index), or even made the connection between food intake and weight loss, was when they first saw a doctor.

School
Life changes such as moving schools or homes, or even countries, were often linked to the start of problems. For many, the move from  primary school, to a bigger secondary school was when they felt their problems started. In particular the change from a familiar environment and strong friendship circles to a more crowded and often high-pressure secondary school environment. School work, especially exams, added to the stress and competition. 

For some, the increased freedom and lack of structure in secondary school or college was hard. Lauren felt that moving away from home and having more freedom played a big part in her developing an eating disorder. People talked about being teased or bullied and how it had contributed to them developing an eating disorder.

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Puberty, body and self
Going through puberty and the bodily changes made some people feel uncomfortable. Some became anxious if they put on weight as they were growing up. For many girls, the thought of starting periods was a major concern. Suzanne had body issues since she was 12 and Maria said she “didn’t want to grow up”. Many felt that the teenage years were a confusing time when problems were more likely to develop.

Elizabeth felt the opposite; she started dieting as she felt it would make her more like older women; 

“I thought it would be great to kind of be a grown up and do what women do which is diet.” Elizabeth

A lot of people said they had been sensitive, anxious and perfectionist as children;  they had tried hard not to step out of line or upset others. Francesca took on a lot of responsibilities at home looking after her younger siblings; “well I’ll just make Mum and Dad’s life easier, that’ll be my job.” Many said that, as children, they worried a lot; a few had had obsessions and experienced depression and low mood. 

Common experiences that people shared included feeling insecure and ’not good enough’. . Some said they felt “different” to others their age; they struggled to “fit in” and didn’t have many friends. Eva made a New Year’s resolution to change herself, including her weight and the way she looked, to be more popular. For Elene, bulimia started by wanting to lose weight to be more attractive to boys. Difficult relationships could also contribute to an eating disorder. Lauren said being in a ‘controlling’ relationship played a role in her developing anorexia nervosa.

Unexpected events and illness
The start of eating disorders could also be linked to a particular traumatic event, such as a sexual assault. For some, the eating disorder was triggered by a physical illness, a stomach virus, or food poisoning, during which they very quickly lost a lot of weight. 

It was never possible to know exactly why an eating disorder started. Over time, it was possible for young people to feel that they began to understand the causes and original triggers of their eating disorder; sometimes counselling helped with this process. 

Last reviewed July 2015.
Last updated July 2015.
 

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