Anxiety about food: Causes, disorders, and more

A person can experience fleeting food anxiety without having an underlying diagnosis. Some people may also use food as a way of coping with anxiety. For example, the findings of the American Psychological Association’s Stress in America survey suggested that 38% of U.S. adults had eaten too much or chosen unhealthful foods due to stress during the past month.

However, a person may have an underlying mental health condition if their anxiety about food:

  • undermines their relationships
  • interferes with their daily life
  • consumes their thoughts
  • causes them to make unhealthful choices consistently

Some potential diagnoses include:

Anorexia nervosa

People with anorexia perceive themselves as being overweight, even when they are very thin. This perception causes intense anxiety about food, causing a person to eat very few calories.

A person may also develop unusual rituals about food, engage in excessive exercise, or take laxatives to lose weight.

Anorexia can cause a person to become dangerously underweight, triggering heart and endocrine system problems, which can be lethal in some cases. Anorexia has the highest death rate of any eating disorder.

Bulimia nervosa

The hallmarks of bulimia are binge eating and purging. People may get rid of the excess food by vomiting, taking laxatives, or using enemas. Alternatively, they might compensate for binge eating by fasting or overexercising.

During a binge session, a person typically feels as though they have little or no control over their eating, leading them to eat much larger quantities of food than is healthy. They may do this in secret and then feel ashamed and embarrassed. This feeling means that they often attempt to prevent weight gain by purging.

Bulimia can cause severe health issues, such as electrolyte imbalances, tooth damage, and injuries to the esophagus (food pipe).

Learn more about the differences between bulimia and anorexia here.

Binge eating disorder

Binge eating disorder is similar to bulimia in that it causes a person to eat very large quantities of food. However, unlike bulimia, a person with binge eating disorder does not purge.

This condition may cause intense shame, and a person may obsess over their food intake. This obsession causes anxiety, which can lead to more binge eating.

This type of binge eating can cause substantial weight gain, as well as serious nutritional imbalances and illnesses, such as type 2 diabetes and hypertension.

Orthorexia

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) does not recognize orthorexia as a standalone eating disorder, but it includes it as a type of avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID). Many clinicians treat it as a separate condition, though.

Orthorexia causes a person to become preoccupied with healthful and “clean” eating. Their fixation goes well beyond a mere attentiveness to good health. Instead, a person assigns a moral quality to foods and fears eating anything unhealthful. This condition can cause dangerous nutritional imbalances and weight loss.

Some people with orthorexia embrace fad diets or get nutritional advice from social media or discredited diet plans.

Anxiety disorders

Generalized anxiety disorder causes a person to feel anxious in many situations where the anxiety is irrational. Some people channel that anxiety toward food. In severe cases, this can lead to eating disorders.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), a type of anxiety, may also cause food anxiety. People with OCD have overwhelming anxious thoughts (obsessions), such as a fear of dying or losing someone they love.

People with OCD manage these thoughts with specific behaviors and rituals (compulsions) such as cleaning, eating only certain foods, or restricting the amount of food that they eat.

Other mental health conditions

Many people with eating disorders or food anxiety have other mental health conditions, such as depression, drug or alcohol use disorder, or schizophrenia. Some people with serious mental health conditions may use food as a way to regain a sense of control.

When a person has an eating disorder and another mental health condition, they will need treatment for both.

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