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Health and weight (young people)

Obsessing about food

Food is an important part of how we live and socialise with our families and friends. Everyone has their own ideas about what, when and how much to eat. For most people these ideas come from their family and culture. Food and eating is usually an enjoyable and necessary part of life but some people become so obsessed by food that it takes over their lives sometimes to the point where they become mentally and physically unwell.
 

Steevie describes how she starts bingeing and says her brain goes into ‘overdrive’.

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Before it was, had a really bad day, noticed something, like maybe noticed one of my friends looked a bit smaller and that would spark one, and it would literally just kind of, I think it was a part of like, because literally it’s like my brain is thinking in overdrive, and I’d think about everything, to just get away, to shut up for just a little while, cram as much food in as possible, and you’re thinking so much about what you’re eating that you don’t think about anything else for that little while. But then you get so full, to the point where you can’t swallow anymore, and you’re like, “Well I’ve got to get rid of this,” because then you just feel terrible and you go and you get rid of it, and then you feel better for a while. And then you feel really bad because you’ve eaten it and you’re not sure if you’ve gotten rid of all of it, and if you have then you’re worried about your stomach lining because of what you’ve read, and then if you haven’t gotten rid of all of it, then how much calories is still left inside you and therefore you should just restrict for a while, just to make sure you haven’t kind of, if you have taken in any, you’re kind of getting rid of it by not eating.
 
But that’s how it used to be constantly, but now it’s kind of like, I think now it’s because it went on so long sometimes it’s a bit uncontrollable like, I don’t sleep very well, at all, and I wake up and just need to go and binge, or like I’ll get home from uni and not be thinking about food at all, but thinking like what’s on TV or what I’ve got to study next, and next thing I’m in the kitchen and I’m just finding whatever I can find, and literally you binge on whatever’s there, it’s not like, “Oh I think I fancy some chips, I fancy a big portion of chips,” it’s not like that - it’s literally whatever you can find that’s what you will eat.
 
So I think that’s just how it is like, for instance today I came home and I went to the ED [eating disorder] clinic and they’d booked me wrong, they told me to come at 2 o’clock but apparently it was at 11 o’clock, and it takes me 2 hours to get there, and I got home and I was drenched and I was freezing and came home and all I remember is dropping my bag, and the next thing I remember I was sitting here and I had, oh I can’t even remember now, I think it was like, a bit of cake that was in the fridge and some, a bag of those pre-made salad and, something else.. a bag of crisps, and literally it was whatever I could find. I mean at one point I’ve got through a loaf of bread, just bread by itself, like nothing on it, just bread.
 

Olivia explains how she limited what she ate whilst dreaming about what she could be eating.

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…I think that was the problem because I didn’t really even when I first started the diet well, it wasn’t really a diet, but when I first started restricting what I ate it, I never thought, “Right. I’ll get down to this and then, you know that’s my perfect thing.” I guess I just expected to keep losing and I’d just be happy and when I was happy I’d just stop the, stop restricting things and I guess that was the problem because I never really did have the ideal in my head. But then once I was in like the thick of the illness I used to think “Okay, so I’m like seven and a half stone and so I’ll just lose a couple of pounds.” And then I’d get there and then I’d think, “I’m still not happy yet. I’ll lose a bit more.” And then a bit more, so it’d just gradually go down.
 
Because I’d just look in the mirror and I couldn’t see weight loss and I’d just be analysing every bit of me and I thought my hips would be too big and my thighs need to go in a bit and I don’t know. Just little things like that and then I also didn’t want to give up the kind of control as well. Because when I skipped a meal or had a bit less one day it’d give me like a satisfaction that I’ve actually done something. I’ve done something I’m good at.
 
So I mean you’ve used the word diet but you made a distinction, you said it wasn’t really a diet it was restricting?
 
Because a diet is, is more like when you have three balanced meals and you lose weight in a safe way. Without kind of, without skipping meals or without, I don’t know, without over-exercising or anything like that. And but with restricting it’s like seriously restricting what you eat and. Not allowing yourself to have what you really want to have. Because I used to dream of all these like meals that I wish I could make and actually eat because at the time I would have just loved a slice of pizza. But it there was just something terrifying about it at the time and I just couldn’t face doing it. Couldn’t face eating a slice of pizza, so yeah.
 
I just used to have this stupid idea that I could only eat after six o’clock in the night so then I’d have all day to kind of exercise and then I could eat after six o’clock. But then after about a week of that it’d just be just one meal a day which would be my evening meal with my parents. And then that went on for quite a long time and then from that it was kind of eating whenever I wanted but really small quantities. So I just wasn’t eating enough. I think it’d gone down to about, no more than four hundred calories a day or something like that. 
Young people we spoke with found themselves planning their lives around food and weight and eventually became unwell developing illnesses such as: 
  • Anorexia, an eating disorder and mental health condition where the person will severely limit or ‘restrict’ the amount of food they have, for long periods of time. For more see What is Anorexia nervosa?’.
  • Bulimia, is an eating disorder and mental health issue where a person regularly eats large amounts of foods in a short space of time (bingeing), then tries to get rid of the food and the calories they contain (purging). Purging can take be done in many ways, e.g. vomiting, taking laxatives or doing too much exercise.  For more see ‘What is Bulimia nervosa?’.
  • Binge-eating disorder is where a person eats large amounts of food within a short space of time on a regular basis, even when they are not hungry.

Anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder or (BED’s) are recognised by doctors as eating disorders that can be treated by psychological therapies including counselling. (For physical effects of these disorders, see Health problems associated with being overweight)
 

Rebecca’s anorexia also led to anaemia and depression.

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Age at interview: 18
Sex: Female
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I wouldn’t eat breakfast. I’d refuse point blank to eat breakfast. I’d take a pack up to school and I would put it in the bin, just wouldn’t eat it. Dinner, I used to kind of like hide the food under other food. If that makes sense you know. Get a slice of bread on side of your plate and so you hide all your bits that you don’t what under that. And I used to be able to like not physically make myself sick. But it’s kind of like, if I thought for long enough, “Oh I want to be sick”. I could be sick. It was like I was able to make myself sick just by thinking about it. I used to just like exercise loads. I used to walk everywhere. Jump around, just to kind of lose all the weight that wasn’t even there in the first place. But I, I thought it was.
 
At one stage I wanted to go on the kind of carrot stick diet. And I had a plan that I wanted to get down to five stone, that was my target, five stone was my target, I really wanted to be that. And the carrots lasted about a week, until my mum kind of said, “Look you have to eat more like, more than carrots.” I‘d eat about, I wouldn’t eat breakfast. I’d have about an apple and a biscuit for my lunch. And I’d barely have dinner, you know, I’d have the tiniest bit of dinner that you can amount. And kind of like I was surviving on like Lucozade. I got addicted to Lucozade just because it was like it would give me the energy to get through the day without kind of piling weight on me. And that’s really it really.
 
And how was that affecting you, not eating?
 
Not eating? Obviously weight dropped off me. I got very, very poorly really quickly actually. I developed anaemia, which is like low in iron. I used to pass out twenty four-seven, just down. Once I passed out in the middle of the shop. At the bus stop it stopped it was snowing, I passed out at the bus stop, at the bus stop in the snow. And it’s quite horrible really because I could feel that it was coming on. And I’d just like be like, “Ok, am I going to pass out?” and I would. It was really weird. But it also like I got diagnosed with depression as well. Because like I knew what I was doing but I didn’t want to change it - if that makes sense? And I couldn’t, I couldn’t see the cause. I couldn’t see why I was doing it, I just was. And then obviously looking back I can see, right the trigger was that.
 

Steevie explains how she got into a cycle of bingeing and purging.

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So yeah I got to about 15 and then was just wondering “Oh what am I going to do, how am I going to get this down?” You know, you’re in school and there was a guy, and it’s just like, “Oh I really need to get my weight down so I can be more attractive,” and I think that’s what it was like majorly about, and then, it came on TV once, just about eating and throwing up after. And I kind of went, “Oh that could be a good idea, that might work.” Because as I’ve said, family was always had food for every occasion, so it would be a way to do what you wanted, eat what you wanted, and still be able to like get rid of it after and be fine, not to worry about putting on your calories or anything like that.
 
So I started doing that for a while. And then I said I’ll do it for about a week, and in a week I’d lost about 6lbs, so I wanted to carry on doing it. And then it just kind of got worse and worse and worse. Well I thought I was getting better and better because I could do it more easily, and you could kind of lie your way out of any situation, and find another reason to run to the bathroom after or, so it just kind of got, escalated from there, and then went to my grandma’s house and she was like, “Oh you look lovely, you’re losing some,” and it just kind of was such a nice feeling, it just kind of escalated I suppose. And then my cousin called one day and was just like, “I’ve just been worried about you recently, I don’t know you just keep coming into my mind, are you alright?”
 
So I told her what I was doing, and she just went, “Oh you must tell your Mum now. Now, tell her now.” And I was like, “No I’m not telling her, she’d freak. I’m not telling her anything.” And she just said, “Oh if you don’t tell her, I’m going to tell her.” And I was really, really close to my cousin, like we were like best friends. She was more like my big sister. And then I told my Mum because she said she would otherwise. And my Mum, as I expected went nuts. She just kind of freaked out and shouted at me, was like, “Oh you’re being stupid, you know.” By then it was kind of like something I did, it was just natural, it became really natural, just something I did and it was I suppose an easy way out. So, I just told her, “Okay I won’t do it anymore.” And I carried on and didn’t tell her. And that was around 15.
 
It kind of just carried on from there till now. And I’ve pretty much been doing it ever since. But it’s only when it got to like 17 that it became more than just a weight thing. It was like being for any situation like if I had a bad day at college it would be just, “Oh I’ll binge and purge.” And it would just make, kind of make things easier. I stopped thinking about stuff. Or like I had a really bad break up at one point with my ex and that again made it worse, and it got up to like 5 times a day, and then started restricting on top of that so it was like, I kind of had a cycle, it was like, okay don’t eat anything for a while, then I’d get just ridiculously hungry and eat loads, and feel bad and get rid of it, and then say I won’t do it again for a while. And that’s kind of how it went on and on and on.
 

Vicki thinks she’s become addicted to food.

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And there’s just no point like in dwelling on it because at the end of the day it’s my own fault for being this way because although I was a good little eater I could’ve always sort of well, to this day, like from when I knew what I was doing, I could’ve stopped myself, like when I was hungry, no, when I wasn’t hungry, sorry, I could’ve just stopped. But I didn’t, and I think it’s just habit as well, like when I’m bored or tired, or bored and tired I just, or just in general it’s just become a habit like.
 
I remember before I did the Transformed programme I’d sort of go to bed, and I wouldn’t be able to sleep because I’d have food on my mind, so I’d go and make a sandwich, and then I’d be able to sleep after I’d had like my fix of a sandwich or something. And it’s just, it’s crazy and, I don’t know, it’s just, I do think that food is like, I know it sounds really stupid, but I think it’s like an addiction, it really is, because it’s just a habit, like it’s a force of habit, and that’s the reason why I’m so big is because I don’t get hungry often, I think I’m hungry because I’m used to eating, and like I’m a nibbler as well so just constantly picking at little things, like at Christmas as well, and there’s sweets here, and chocolates over there, and the Christmas tree with all the chocolates and the candy canes, and you’re just like, “Oh, where do I go?” And it just, I just don’t know. It’s really frustrating how, like I know I could’ve done something about it before now, but I haven’t, or I’ve tried but it never works like because I always fall back into the same routine of, sort of just eating when I feel like it.
 
And Mum always tries to help me, and I don’t think, Dad obviously cares but he’s just sort of like, “Well it’s your life, it’s your body,” kind of thing, whereas Mum also battles with her weight, and she’s, I think if she could she’d lose the weight for me, but by pressuring me to lose the weight it’s just making me think well I don’t want to lose the weight. Like she’s on my case all the time, I’m just like, “Leave me alone, I want to eat something.”
According to the charity Beat, there could be many reasons why people get eating disorders but they can develop from difficult circumstances or life experiences. For example, some people have problems at home and/or school and react by ‘comfort eating’. Others feel unsettled or confused about life and respond by avoiding food altogether. People could be affected by eating disorders in different ways; one mother told us about her son’s eating disorder which didn’t fit any specific category.
 

Sam was badly bullied at school and believes this caused him to develop bulimia.

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Age at interview: 23
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So it became quite frequent for me, for kind of leave a lesson quite suddenly, just to escape all that verbal abuse. And where I’d go it be the boys toilets because it was the only place where I would not be found, because, you know, it’s the last places teachers tend to think for some strange reason, and it was quite an isolated place where there was very few people.
 
So what I did there really, was comfort eat initially on what I had in my lunch box with that being, you know, sandwiches, or crisps or biscuits or whatever and that was just a way to make yourself look better, because I think I felt probably quite depressed, and quite down and really unbelievably anxious about being in the school environment. So that became my way of just kind of dealing with that in a way.
 
So and that’s what I did. And I think the first time I did it, I didn’t necessarily think, eating disorder, or bulimia or any of those things, because, you know, I’d never thought about that before. It wasn’t really the sort of thing I’d come across. So I didn’t think that it was anything like that.
 
And I actually thought at the time quite naively that, you know, it would do me better because the fact that I was going to be sick, making myself sick was a good thing. You know what I mean. So, and what I found was that, that, it was quite therapeutic in a weird kind of… well in a twisted kind of way. You know, because the kind of, the making, you know, the comfort eating was kind of representing the build up of emotions that I was experiencing in some ways. And feeling quite full, felt like I was feeling, you know, quite bursting at the seams with all these things I had to, anger and sadness I suppose as well, for the situation. So making myself sick kind of relieved all those kind of build up of emotions which in effect made myself feel better.
 
And I think that is what I realised quite quickly that, that, you know, it was a good thing for me at that time. So, and that’s how it kind of developed. You know, I would keep on running out of lessons or running from the school yard or whatever, and going to the toilet, and carrying on these behaviours as a coping mechanism to deal with what I was going through.
 
 

Parul’s son who has EDNOS (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified) won’t eat during the day and binge-eats low calorie foods at night.

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Age at interview: 50
Sex: Female
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It was also difficult to find out whether he had an eating disorder or anorexia or bulimia but he was found to have EDNOS [Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified] which is neither. But he was anorexic during the day, come the evening it was like, well I haven’t actually eaten enough, and he would binge but binge on low calorie stuff. Very eating disordered, I had to buy yogurts from Tesco’s, Tesco’s brand, I would have to buy pasta from Asda’s because he knew the calorie content of that, he was into bagels that had to be from Sainsbury’s, it was just like, mad. I was hiding food, not hiding, locking food in my car boot because he was able to access anywhere else, he would go through punnets of tomatoes and punnets of strawberries, pull out cold frozen food from the freezer and eat that. But this would be at night and then we ended up with bedwetting as well.
 
And gaining weight is a real struggle. Gained a kilo, no, yeah a kilo in a week, but that’s like a constant reminder, he could get a kilo every day if he chose to, but like he’s gone today to work, he would have walked about half a mile, maybe, but he would’ve power walked it, and he carries extra stuff with him, breakfast would have been nothing. I tend to get him Fortisips and things, supplements now to take to school instead of milk, because I know he won’t have it, so at least I know he’s getting 300 calories. Real struggle, and even at night we eat a meal, and it has to be, although we’re supposed to eat at a quarter to eight, we never start eating until 8 o’clock, three measly potatoes, I mean they’re just like 3 golf balls, the sweet, for the last 2 or 3 weeks Mueller Light has been his kind of like the protein source with a small bit of cabbage or broccoli. And that’s his dinner, it’s like, and if I say anything he gets very, very aggressive, I think 5 years down and I’m getting to a stage why I can’t be bothered anymore.  
People who have an eating disorder are taken over by obsessive thoughts and patterns of behaviour. They can become trapped in a cycle of limiting what they eat or bingeing and purging, that gets worse over time. It can be difficult for people to realise they have a problem or accept that they need help. Those we met who had anorexia and/or bulimia knew that they had developed problems with food and eating. Some had had psychological treatments like group therapy and counselling. Despite treatment, some of them knew they still had eating problems.
 

Steevie explains how her bulimia got worse and worse.

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It’s like someone took the blacked glasses off and all of a sudden I could notice everything, and, you know, I’d look in the mirror and everything was not just a bit big, it was ginormous. And I just remember being petrified one day, I was getting dressed and I was petrified, I remember looking in the mirror and just thinking, “Oh my God, what’ve I done? What’s happened? How did I let myself get like this?” And I remember going to school that day, and all my friends like, “What’s the matter, you’re really quiet today, you’re really quiet?” And I just couldn’t look them in the eye because, and when I was looking at them, I wasn’t looking at them I was looking at their bodies and looking at everyone’s bodies and looking at, all the girls with the guys and, looking at my teachers. I remember looking at my teachers and thinking, “Oh God I’m even bigger than my teachers.” And, everything just became so noticeable to such, on such a big scale, it was like I just wanted to stay in the house, and never ever leave, but obviously I couldn’t. And I just think since then I’ve always been like that, I just think I’ve always just kind of noticed everything.
 
And I’ll look at everything like strangers, I’ll be on the bus and somebody’ll be holding onto the banister thing and I’ll notice their wrists are smaller than mine, and it’s just really literally if you could hear what went off in my head on a daily basis you’d think I was nuts, but yeah, and it just kind of got worse and worse and worse, but it just became so normal for me to notice those things, my eating would also adapt to that so, I’d go from eating huge meals to… this was like when I was at home, the same meal portion but just noticing everything, like every spoonful I’d take I’d be trying to estimate how much calories was in it. And you know when Mum was cooking and I was watching her cook, I’d be like, “Yeah, that’s about 10 calories, yeah that’s about 100, that’s about…” you know, I’d be noticing everything, and I’d notice what other people were eating, and I’d sit there thinking,”How are you eating that and not thinking about your calorie intake and your fat intake?” and all that stuff. So I think it was just that I couldn’t, like even though, but because that’s how we ate at home, even though I couldn’t really stop it because then my Mum would get suspicious and so I carried on eating the same way, but I just noticed it more, and I think if anything it just made me feel worse, and therefore the bulimia got worse. And that’s just kind of how it went on and on and on.
 
And it’s really interesting that you said, you know, you felt like you were kidding yourself, and then it was as if the sort of, you know, the blinkers were taken away, and all of a sudden you could see the truth. And I guess it’s so interesting that that you felt like you were kidding yourself because, before then would you say, before that point would you say that you were happy with your size?
 
No. But everyone else was in my family, so it didn’t bother me that much. I’ve always kind of been a people-pleaser, and the people at school it had gone past the point where, like I wasn’t being bullied, and I’d made friends and it didn’t bother anyone so, it never bothered me. And then at home it was the same, it, it never caused any problem and no-one said anything so it never bothered me. And even though I wasn’t exactly happy, because no-one else was being made upset by it all - like it didn’t seem to be affecting them - it didn’t kind of make me want to do much about it,
Most of the young people we spoke with were overweight, rather than underweight. Many had problems with their eating behaviour such as binge eating. However only a couple of them wanted to get psychological help to tackle their problem.
 

Becca feels that her obsession with food is as much of an emotional disorder as anorexia.

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Age at interview: 17
Sex: Female
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I think for a person to be overweight and obese nine times out of ten it is probably not a genetic thing it is probably an emotional kind. I think it should be treated in the same way as anorexia is treated, it is an emotional disorder causing physical damage, and I know that the two are very different things but I think that you have got to be emotionally stressed or upset in order to have this kind of obsession with food, because at the end of the day if you are that overweight you, like I had an obsession with food and a lot of people do have an obsession with food, you know, that like either they won’t eat it or they eat too much of it, you know, so I think it should be treated in the same way anorexia is treated. It is an emotional disorder, and I think most of the time, you know, like people that are overweight or obese they don’t, it is not sympathy that they are after, it is just the kind of guidance that, “Okay it is alright we can handle it.” You know like instead of it is your own choice that this, it is what you have done that has caused this, you know, but like anorexic people they, they get support and, you know, and whereas being overweight it is kind of a negative thing and it is a criticism of you, you know which, again it’s not necessarily all doctors but I think it should be treated as an emotional disorder because, you know, it is not just a physical thing that you overeat there is obviously something in your mind that is making you overeat.
 
 
 

Sam’s voluntary work has helped him put his bad experiences behind him. He promotes awareness about men and eating disorders and works in a mental health project for young people.

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Age at interview: 23
Sex: Male
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I actually got involved with lots of different activities, for example, I went to schools and talked about my experiences of bullying to other, you know, students, regardless of their sexuality, to talk about the issues of homophobia. So that was quite a good way of kind of putting all those issues to bed in some ways, because it meant that I could talk about it and say, “This is what I went through.” You know, by saying that pen is gay, or that person’s gay because you don’t like them, obviously has big implications so I could talk about these issues that I’d come through to students and that was quite good for me. Because, you know, it was almost turning all those negative experiences into something positive, which almost became like therapy in itself in a way [laughs]. Because do you know what I mean, you really can put closure on things.
 
It’s like self-therapy isn’t it?
 
Yes, exactly. And in fact that is what I do now, with my web site and the mental health project, you know, its all kind of, all of the projects that I’ve been involved with and still am involved with, are from direct amount of experiences and issues that I’ve been through.
 
So it means that, you know, it can help other people and raise awareness of those issues as well to pass on to other people that aren’t so aware, so…
 
And what about your plans for the future?
 
I very much will continue with my ‘men get eating disorders too’ campaign, you know, I’ve set up the web site and do lots of media and press stuff to try and raise the awareness of the issue of male eating disorders because there is very little out there. If not hardly anything really, for men with eating disorders, so that’s something I’m very much trying to continue and sustain in the future. 
For more young people’s experiences of eating disorders visit our eating disorders section.

Last reviewed July 2017.

Last updated February 2012.

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