Why do I choose not to eat?

Originally Published: February 8, 2008 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: November 4, 2011
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Dear Alice,

I really hope you can help me. I'm 21 years old and never had any problems with eating. At 18, I sunk into a very deep depression and since then my eating has not been the same. It started slowly, where I would just skip a meal every now and then, but now I sometimes choose to go for days without eating and it's not because I want to lose weight, even though I have lost quite a bit, I just feel like I can't change anything in my life. I love my friends and I always have a great time with them, but at the same time, I find it so much easier to not eat when with them. That's what I can't understand. Why, if I feel happy around my friends, do I still choose not to eat? I went for almost a week without eating when I was away with them. For some bizarre reason, I feel better about my life when I stick to my decision to not do something, but at the same time, I want to stop, but I'm afraid I'll get really depressed. It doesn't really hurt me, but my friends harass me and I can't help them to understand when I don't even understand. Why am I doing this??

Thanks!

Dear Reader,

Kudos for taking the first step and reaching out to ask about your feelings and behaviors. The symptoms you describe, including going long periods of time without eating, may be dangerous and could have long-term effects on your health. Feeling down once in a while is common but the depression you mention, and the fear of becoming more depressed if you begin eating more regularly, may be a serious clinical depression (and could be what is affecting your eating habits).

Skipping meals and intentionally not eating for periods of time (sometimes called fasting) can become addictive. Many people who fast experience euphoric feelings of well-being, feelings that are likely harmless when fasting in moderation. However, this "high" may mask feelings of being down or depressed and could explain why you feel better when you avoid eating (and why you continue to go long periods of time without food). Fasting too often can be detrimental to your health because your body is denied nutrients and energy it needs.

Avoiding food could also be a sign of a serious eating disorder: anorexia nervosa. See Eating disorders vs. normal eating for more information about the signs and symptoms of eating disorders. People with anorexia sometimes describe a feeling of control when they don't eat; a feeling that may be very powerful. You mention that you feel like you can't change anything in your life; controlling what you eat and skipping meals may be a way of feeling in control. Talking with a counselor or other mental health care provider about your feelings and eating habits may help you to understand your behaviors and feel more in control of your life. Columbia students may contact Counseling and Psychological Services (CPS) (x4-2878) to make an appointment.

Talking with a mental health care provider may be a good way to begin to think about other factors in your life that may be contributing to your desire to skip meals, especially when you are around your friends. If you aren't sure how to begin a conversation with a counselor, you could simply tell her or him what you have written here, or you could ask one of your concerned friends to go along and help explain what s/he has noticed about your eating habits. Gaining an understanding of why you are feeling this way is an important step to overcoming these feelings and being able to eat normally without fear of becoming depressed.

It may take some work to find the right counselor and confront your fear of becoming depressed, but you already took an important (and difficult!) first step to seeking help. It also sounds like you have good friends who want to support you. Best of luck as you take the next steps to living a healthier, happier life.

Alice