Depression and low mood

Depression, food & eating disorders

It is quite common for eating or “not eating” to be linked with different emotional states, for example, missing a meal before an important event due to anxiety or binge eating when upset. However, for some of the young people we spoke with, this link was more marked.

Depression and food
Quite a few young people talked about their relationship with food and the link between food and their mood. Many described eating as a form of a coping strategy, particularly as a way to attempt to control what otherwise felt like uncontrollable moods and emotions. For some, this meant not eating much at all, or only eating certain foods, or binging. Young women also talked about peer pressure in school to be of certain weight, and their classmates being constantly on diets and trying to lose weight for special occasions like the prom.

Some also described control over eating as a form of self-harm. For them, not eating, being “obsessive” about eating and “calorie counting” were the only way they felt they could control their moods or depression. A couple said that not eating or binging was easier to hide and keep a secret from those around them than for example cutting.

One woman had been diagnosed with “food phobia” and said at times when she felt anxious or depressed she stopped eating. She said she had to avoid the “feel good factor” that eating could bring her as she couldn’t handle the overwhelming feeling of happiness. She later found out she’d had difficulties with food and eating since she was a baby.
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Depression and eating disorders
We also spoke to a few young people who had developed an eating disorder, such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa. Eating disorders are much more common among women, and in fact all the people we spoke with about eating problems for this website were women. (Male experiences of eating disorders can be found in our Eating disorders website.)
Many of them had been bullied about their appearance or weight in school and they’d started losing weight to try and fit in and stop the bullying. They also said their self-esteem was really low and being bullied about their weight knocked down their confidence even more. One woman said the main issue in her developing an eating disorder was serious long term bullying she had experienced in school, which was never addressed and dealt with. People around her were more focused on getting her weight up, rather than addressing the underlying problem of the bullying.

One woman said that the most significant factor in triggering her eating problem was the media and its portrayal of skinny celebrities who always seem “happy” and “successful”.
For many of those who’d developed an eating disorder, difficulties with food had started off as a form of self-harm. A couple of women said they had never intended it to go as far as it did but that eating had “become a monster of its own” or gradually “taken over” their lives. For one woman binging was meant to be “a secret thing on the side” but in the end, bulimia became a “fulltime job”. She says “it became my life”. For many, not eating was a way to “punish” themselves. One woman described the extent of her bulimia in the following way:
“I was hugely bulimic. I know every public toilet in the West Country off by heart, what times to use them, when it’s quiet, like whether or not they give good loo rolls so you can wipe away the sick.”
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A couple of women said they exercised a lot. One became “obsessed” with sport and the gym and another said her “sportiness” masked her weight loss. They also pointed out that once they started getting better they had to be careful not to start overdoing exercise and had to be consciously aware of getting the balance right.
For a lot of these young people their school work had suffered because of severe problems with eating. Many started missing lessons because they were too consumed with eating, or to avoid being bullied about their weight. Their grades started going down and one woman took an extra year to do her A-levels. One woman said she was “a perfectionist” and the school work put a lot of extra pressure on her mood and eating.
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The effects of an eating disorder on young people’s physical and mental wellbeing were just as all-encompassing as the role the eating disorder had gained in their life. Physically, they said they always felt “fatigued”, tired and had difficulty concentrating. One woman described her physical symptoms:
“I felt really weak. Difficult to concentrate on work. That could be because of the mental thing and the physical thing together; sore throat, just feeling, generally dreadful because vomiting takes up quite a lot of energy. Not having sufficient minerals and vitamins and protein and all that does make you really tired.”
One woman said she was always “cold and sleepy” and had to go to bed at 8pm. Some also suffered with bloating, black outs or were more susceptible to infections and viruses. Psychologically, people described feeling anxious and the battle with eating making depression much worse; “the depression that comes with it is just horrendous”. Several also said they had suicidal feelings and urges and a couple of people had attempted suicide. In the end, a few said they had stopped caring for and about themselves. One person said for her, eating was a way to try and distract her mind from suicidal feelings and try and ignore them, even for a short time.
Support for eating disorders
Many people they knew they had a problem with their eating but felt unable or unwilling to ask for help. One woman said bulimia is “like having a best friend only you know you shouldn’t be hanging out with”. They described feeling too “shy” or “ashamed” to seek help for their eating problems. One woman said she found it particularly hard to seek help for bulimia because she found it “a dirty secret” compared to anorexia. Almost all of them said they’d become “good liars” or experts at “keeping secrets”.
For some, it was years until anyone else realised they had a problem with eating:
“I ended up in hospital and that was my first stint sort of ten years after my initial problems began, when I was even seen by a professional, you know making myself sick 7 or 8 times a day and nobody picked up on it kind of thing. Or if they did they didn’t say anything.”
A couple of people had really wanted the help but hadn’t been able to get it. One woman said she was desperate for any adult figure to notice she had a problem, to take it seriously and help her. She kept trying to lose more weight so someone would notice how ill she was because she felt unable to speak up and approach anyone. Another woman said she and her GP had to “beg” to get into specialist care for depression and the eating disorder. After several suicide attempts she had been admitted as an outpatient and put into an “eating programme”.
Parents’ reactions varied. Some parents had been very supportive, actively looking out for information and different interventions, others were unaware of the problem. One woman said her parents didn’t quite know how to handle her eating disorder and had just told her to stop doing it. One woman said her parents knew she was regularly making herself sick at home but they hadn’t intervened. It was her teacher who’d noticed her vomiting in the toilets and approached her about it.
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Talking treatments (therapy and counselling) had been useful but also “hard work” for many. In addition, a couple had also been on antidepressants to help with their low moods. One woman said she got help from CBT because she’d learnt cognitive “activities” she could apply to other areas of her life too.
A few people had been hospitalised as their weight had gone down so much or because they’d attempted suicide. One woman felt the experience of staying on ward negative and she felt controlled:
“Everyone who wanted to help were just trying to control me basically, not really trying to help, they just wanted to control and take over. It felt like I had like no control, so my self-harm was basically my way of controlling my food.”
For a few, problems with eating had been the trigger for them to get help with their depression for the first time. Many said they were still working through their issues in counselling and that a level of awareness of food and eating was still present in their everyday lives.
For information see our eating disorders section.

Last reviewed June 2017.


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