How Dieting Can Lead To Eating Disorders

dieting can lead to eating disorders

I talk a lot about weight loss and diets, and I also talk a lot about eating disorders. The two can be linked and I wanted to dedicate a post (and podcast episode) to talk about how dieting can lead to eating disorders.

When discussed, both of these topics do tend to be more geared towards women. And that isn’t surprising as women are affected by both of these much more prominently than men. But men do diet too and men do get eating disorders as well.

And it’s frustrating for anyone affected by this that when you start a diet you start with a positive intent to improve your health and it can end up having a dramatic negative impact on both your mental and physical health.

Let’s dive into this.

Definition Of An Eating Disorder

To lay some groundwork, I think we should start with some definitions.

So let’s start with what the definition of an eating disorder is, and I am going to quote directly from the NHS website here.

An eating disorder is a mental health condition where you use the control of food to cope with feelings and other situations.

I think it’s important to note the definition refers to control of food rather than specifically restriction of food.

Some of the most common named eating disorders, and I have written about each of them before, are:

Some of the common behaviour patterns across eating disorders can include:

  • demonising food in general or some specific ones
  • fasting
  • following specific rules
  • banning some foods entirely
  • feeling guilty or anxious around food
  • trying to suppress hunger for long periods or in some cases to the point of complete starvation

What Is A Diet?

I took my definition of a diet directly from Wikipedia which defines a diet simply as:

…the kinds of food that a person, animal, or community habitually eats.

It is purely the things we typically eat and drink. Nothing about weight loss or eliminating food or anything like that.

For that, we actually need to look at the term “dieting”.

So What Is Dieting?

The definition of diet in the fitness and weight loss industry is closer to what Wikipedia defines as dieting. And that is:

The practice of eating food in a regulated way to decrease, maintain, or increase body weight or change body shape.

How Common Is Dieting?

I did try to pull together some stats and trivia on dieting. I haven’t verified

  • The first recorded diet book is called Letter On Corpulence, Addressed To The Public which was published in 1863 by William Banting in the UK. You can read it online for free here.
  • A study by the CDC found that 49.1% of adults surveyed between 2013 and 2016 had tried dieting for weight loss in the previous 12 months.
  • According to a 2017 article published in Obesity Review, globally, 42% of adults were trying to lose weight any given time and 23% were trying to maintain their weight
  • A 2005 article in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggested that weight regain after dieting could be as high as 95%.
  • NEDA estimates that up to 25% of cases of dieting can lead to eating disorders

I won’t deep dive into how or why diets don’t work in this post but that will be something I’ll talk about in future too.

Why Do We Go On A Diet?

There can be any number of reasons why we go on a diet. The most common ones tend to be:

  • Wanting to make a change to physical appearance
  • Wanting to improve or change an aspect of physical or mental health
  • Supporting a specific physical, sports or performance goal – if you do any sports with weight categories for example

The most common one I think is probably the first one – wanting to change physical appearance. Vanity sells.

But the problem is that it often starts from a negative self-view. You dislike a part of you, which may lead to an emotional trigger, which leads to dieting that can set you on an emotional rollercoaster.

If you start with a positive goal, you might find your journey is more enjoyable and easier to stick to.

Let’s say you enjoy running and you decide you want to run faster. You already have something that gives you some pleasure and enjoyment. As you change your nutrition, your performance improves. You end up on a high.

You enter a positive cycle – you are doing better, which means you stick to your diet, which means you do better. You’re much more likely to want to carry on.

If you start from a negative place – for example, hating a part of your body – it sets you up on an emotional rollercoaster than is more likely to lead you down the road towards emotional ties to food and disordered eating patterns.

How Dieting Can Lead To Eating Disorders

I already talked about starting from a negative mental space as a common way to end up on that dark road.

I think the best way to demonstrate this is to give you an example from my own experience.

From my heaviest to lightest, I lost 140 pounds.

140 pounds weight loss

Early on in that process, when my weight loss became visibly noticeable to other people I started getting compliments and positive attention for it.

As someone who always was (and still is) something of a background character who most people don’t take notice of, it felt great to get that kind of attention.

And while I loved getting it, in my brain it did create a link between that positive attention and the idea that being thinner or skinnier is better.

From this, my target shifted from generally sustainable weight loss to a point that I feel comfortable, to just trying to get as light or as thin as I could.

And this is where some disordered eating behaviours started to come in.

For a period of time my day would look like this:

  • Get up and have a bowl of porridge
  • Go to the gym and do an hour or so of cardio
  • Work
  • Throughout my work day I would mainly just have fruit and a few boxes of raisins
  • Go to the gym for a bit more exercise
  • Have a “proper meal” at dinner

I never sought out professional help and the idea of eating disorders was completely alien to me at the time.

Looking back, I probably should have gotten some help.

I’m unlikely to have been diagnosed with any eating disorder at that stage. If anything, I was probably towards the upper limits of “moderate” or “reasonable” behaviour without quite crossing over into eating disorder territory.

But that behaviour pattern did lead me down the road to orthorexia, which is the fixation on only eating foods that you would deem “pure” or healthy for you.

orthorexia in men - orthoriexia nervosa meaning symptoms

So my diet became very strict and very “clean”. And I was having treats or less nutritious foods so infrequently that if or when I did, one of two things would happen:

  • I would feel like I screwed up my diet entirely
  • Pent-up cravings would take over

In both scenarios, I would go all in and basically eat without any notion of control for that day.

That behaviour pattern did end up staying with me and led me down the road to binge eating disorder a few years later.

And all of that started purely from good intentions and wanting to diet to lose weight for my health and some vanity too.

Getting Help Or Support For Eating Disorders

First of all, I do want to clarify that all dieting or control of food is not an eating disorder.

In most cases, it isn’t.

Pursuing a health, fitness or aesthetic goal will involve food control. And it will require some discipline, and sacrifice and there will be hardship.

The distinction is how emotionally attached you are or become to the eating plan you are following.

When it reaches the extent at which it is a bit obsessive and starts to interfere with your day-to-day life, then it is worth thinking about where you are on this journey.

Try this simple test.

Let’s say you have been on a consistent diet and made great progress and then your birthday comes up.

Of course, it’s pretty normal to relax, let go of food restrictions, indulge a bit, and enjoy yourself.

The question is how you react to that. Do you:

  • Enjoy the day, feel comfortable relaxing your eating plan and get back on track the next day.
  • Feel guilty, try to burn it off and feel like you’ve derailed months of progress.

If it’s the first one, then great. If it is the latter then maybe it is worth looking at whether you might have developed an eating disorder, or perhaps at least a strong negative emotional link to your food.

I need to add a disclaimer here. I am not a qualified medical professional or a dietitian. So it’s not my place to try to treat, diagnose or advise on this area for you. So bear that in mind.

But it is an early warning sign that perhaps your behaviour may need a slight change. And that is the point at which getting some professional help might be a good option.

The earlier you can catch yourself, the quicker and easier recovery and getting out of that headspace is.

Some helpful resources to get you started are:

How To Stop Dieting

Dieting is a helpful tool for health goals and if you do have a goal to change your body shape in some way. The issue is how we approach it.

If you start from a negative space, for example:

  • “I hate my body”
  • “I’m too fat”
  • “I don’t like the way I look”

It is a much more mentally taxing and emotional journey to go on than if you start from a positive space.

So maybe try to give the behaviours you’re following a more positive spin:

  • Instead of thinking about foods you banned, focus on the ones that you are having that feel nourishing to you. No foods should need to be banned (barring medical advice) but if you are restricting specific foods, that is 100% up to you.
  • Instead of thinking about the process as sacrifice and punishment, think about the time and energy you are investing into yourself and how you are empowering yourself.
  • Don’t think about things you can’t do or how far you still have to go. Focus on the progress you’re making and how far you have already come.
  • Find a positive goal that engages you mentally and physically.

The lightest I ever got in my adult life was when gyms closed with the first Covid lockdown.

I had to adapt my training and learn bodyweight and calisthenics workouts from scratch. I couldn’t do cardio so started walking a lot more. And I took up yoga finally after putting it off for years.

I felt good. I felt strong. I was able to move pain-free (and still can). I loved starting to see my body do things physically that I never thought it’d be able to.

And with my walks, I started listening to podcasts. And through that I learned about history, business, investing, marketing, and astronomy. I also discovered the world of independent fiction podcast creators and that has been thoroughly enriching.

My diet was more flexible and relaxed. I was getting the nutrients I need, enjoying the food I love and got the most consistent (and maybe the easiest) weight loss results I have ever had.

My sweet tooth was well looked after still and I was able to continue enjoying some kind of dessert every day.

dieting can lead to eating disorders

Wrapping Up On Dieting And Eating Disorders

I’ve rambled a bit so to bring this to a close with bullet points:

  • Dieting can start with positive intentions but you can’t let it become your identity.
  • Try not to let it take over your life or allow yourself to link emotions to it.
  • Focus on empowering yourself and the progress you’re making.
  • Always aim for progress over perfection – it is more sustainable than aiming only for perfection

If you have any questions, feel free to get in touch.

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