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The “news” headlines that make us sick with eating disorders

news headlines focusing on dieting, exercise and losing weight all carry misinformation that is dangerous for people who have eating disorders

These headlines are from news sources that promise to tell us the latest and greatest, research-based information about our health. For those of us who have/had eating disorders, these types of headlines are more than just clickbait – they tap into the obsessive side of ourselves that desperately wants to follow rules and be OK. Our eating disorder sees these headlines and wants to follow them. We have tied our body size to our self-worth, and we want to do what the “experts” tell us is “healthy.”

If you have a child who has an eating disorder, please open regular conversations about how headlines like this can trigger our disorders. Help us work through the painful act of rebelling against the words that tell us how to be healthy by restricting food, dieting, and over-exercising. Help us maintain recovery by reminding us that true health is accomplished only when we accept our bodies and don’t live in fear of food and fat.

Here are some key triggers for those of us who have/had eating disorders when we see headlines like this:

Headlines that suggest we should “eat less” or “exercise more.”

The assumption in these headlines is that we need to lose weight. Even if the headline doesn’t explicitly state weight loss as the goal, we all know that the reason why we want to “trick” ourselves into eating fewer calories or “motivate” ourselves to exercise more is to lose weight. This assumption is deeply triggering to someone who has an eating disorder.

In recovery, we work hard to realize that our bodies are fine just as they are and that we don’t need to control them, starve them, or purge them of food. Additionally, simply eating less and exercising more is not a recipe for losing weight long-term. Diets based on this recipe fail 95% of the time and actually result in weight gain. That’s a tremendous failure rate, and yet headlines continue to promote diets as if they are scientifically valid.

Headlines that suggest weight is linked to being “good” or “bad.”

Any suggestion that restricting food or exercising makes us ‘good’ can lead those of us who have eating disorders to feel intense shame and guilt. In our recovery, we need to learn inherent worthiness decouples from our weight, food intake or exercise patterns. Yet everywhere we go, we read about “cheat days,” and how to trick our bodies into either eating less or exercising more. These messages can upset our recovery chances and put us back on the road to our eating disorder.

Before and after images showing someone who has a larger belly and then a tighter belly.

This is the oldest diet marketing trick in the book. The image of someone’s belly looking distended and then tight, as magically influenced by a restriction-based diet and/or over-exercising induces a visceral response for most of us. Most of us feel disgusted by the ‘before’ and deeply desire the ‘after.’ Before and after images tell us that Fat is gross and controllable. This is deeply triggering for people who have eating disorders and have associated small body size with being worthy and “good.” These images are fatphobic and set unrealistic expectations for what a diet can accomplish.

Headlines that suggest a direct link between health and a specific food.

Nutrition science is limited to correlation. We simply cannot run human studies to determine whether there is causation between food, weight, and health. But media outlets love it when nutrition scientists find even a statistically insignificant correlative link between a particular food and a particular health outcome. Scientists frequently speak out against how their research has been presented in the media, but the media still persists in presenting statistically insignificant correlative data as fact.

Headlines that suggest there is a link between exercise and weight.

It has been proven that exercise, while it has many benefits, does not lead to weight loss. In fact, for many people, exercise increases appetite and therefore weight gain. But exercise-driven headlines are very popular. Over-exercising is a frequent precursor to eating disorders and often accompanies food-based restriction, binging and purging.

Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating issues, body shame and eating disorders.

She’s the founder of and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate disordered eating, eating disorder recovery, and other challenging emotional and behavioral issues.

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