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When Dieting Leads to an Eating Disorder

By Staff Writer

People who have eating disorders may try to cover up their illness by explaining to friends and family that they are “on a diet.” In fact, some eating disorder sufferers convince themselves that this is the case, telling themselves that their habits are either not a big deal or only temporary.

But there is more to the connection between dieting and eating disorders. In many ways, there is actually a fine line between them; extreme weight-loss diets often resemble eating disorders, and eating disorders may be shrouded under the guise of healthy habits.

The Blurry Line Between Dieting and Eating Disorders

The difference between weight-loss diets and eating disorders can be difficult to identify, but it generally falls where food-related behaviors cease to promote good health. In other words, when a person’s efforts to lose weight go too far and become damaging to the body, he or she may have an eating disorder. In many cases, a dieter can slip into eating disorder behaviors without realizing that it has happened.

Of course, the causes of eating disorders can be complex, and it’s usually not as simple as a diet plan going too far. Some people with eating disorders are chronic dieters whose issues with food and weight have deep psychological roots. Some develop issues with weight and body image at an early age, and by their teens may sink into a never-ending cycle of dieting and weight gain. Over time, frustration with this cycle can lead to ever more extreme forms of dieting, which can eventually turn into an eating disorder.

Meanwhile, some eating disorder sufferers have never had weight problems, yet view themselves as overweight due to a poor self-image and/or low self-esteem. For these individuals, dieting can become a slightly different type of never-ending cycle; one gets skinnier and skinner yet never feels that the weight loss is enough.

When someone is predisposed to these conditions, diets can serve as gateways to eating disorders. In this age of fad diets, there’s no shortage of eating plans to adopt, and an inordinate number of them are either ineffective or not sustainable in the long term. A failed diet can inspire the frustrated person to seek more radical solutions such as fasting, cleansing, purging, taking laxatives, abusing diet pills or over-exercising – all of which qualify as eating disorder behaviors, even if the dieter thinks of them as only temporary.

Distinguishing Between Dieting and Eating Disorders

It can be difficult to tell the difference between a weight-loss diet and an eating disorder, but here are some important differences to consider:

  • Dieting is integrated into one’s life without interfering with one’s responsibilities or everyday activities. Eating disorders take control of people’s lives.
  • Healthy dieters take a balanced approach to weight loss, combining healthy eating practices with daily exercise. Most understand that dieting takes time and that weight loss cannot and should not take place overnight. In contrast, people with eating disorders may be obsessed with losing weight and will often do whatever it takes to shed pounds as quickly as possible.
  • People on diets may feel uneasy with their appearance, and they may strongly desire to lose weight, but they tend to view themselves realistically. People with eating disorders, on the other hand, often have distorted views of themselves and may see themselves as overweight no matter what size they are.
  • Dieting can be a fun social activity. People with eating disorders usually suffer alone and do not enjoy what they do.
  • Healthy dieting should make the person stronger and fitter in many respects. Eating disorder sufferers often become progressively less healthy, damaging their bodies in significant ways.
  • Healthy dieters generally do not feel depressed or down on themselves when they have a lapse in their plan. People with eating disorders are often depressed and filled with regret and self-loathing when they fail to live up to the impossibly high standards they set for themselves.

Orthorexia: Extreme Food Obsession

Although most risky types of dieting are for the purpose of weight loss, other types of diets can be equally troublesome. The term “orthorexia” was only recently coined, but it has quickly gained traction as a way to describe pathological food-obsessive behaviors that do not necessarily cross over into conventionally recognized eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa. The condition is often associated with progressive food movements such as veganism or raw foodism – strict diet plans that, while not necessarily unhealthy, can be dangerous when adopted by an individual who is predisposed to eating disorders. 

People with orthorexia take healthy eating to the next level, obsessing over which foods qualify as “pure” and all the negative things that “impure” foods can supposedly do to the body. With orthorexia, the focus is not on getting or staying skinny so much as avoiding impure foods. Orthorexics are often genuinely concerned with eating in a healthy and socially conscious manner, and they may be deeply interested in green, organic and local food movements, but their interest in promoting these causes goes beyond what’s normal and healthy.

Orthorexics come to see food as a moral issue and may even alienate themselves from friends and family who do not share their philosophy on food. Once the individual reaches this point, the condition can quickly descend into something even more sinister, as the line between orthorexia and more severe eating disorders can become blurry.

Recognizing the Need for Eating Disorder Treatment

If you or someone you know has taken dieting too far, it’s important to take action before things get worse. There’s no such thing as a “minor” eating disorder; once someone ventures into this territory, their behavior becomes self-destructive and can even be life-threatening. If the disorder is not recognized and treated early, it can lead to serious long-term consequences for one’s body and mind.

There is help out there for eating disorder sufferers. Even if you feel that your or your loved one’s condition is just a temporary thing, it’s crucial to see a doctor to address any physical issues that the eating disorder behaviors may have caused. Because these disorders are often deeply rooted, a stay in a residential eating disorder treatment facility or long-term treatment with a therapist specializing in eating disorders may be called for. Talk to your doctor about your treatment options.