Foodphobia: why are there so many people restricting entire food groups in the name of health, and what does it have to do with eating disorders?

As the food industry has continued to deliver tastier, cheaper, and more easily available food, the $70 billion diet industry has simultaneously arisen to convince us that eating is something about which we should feel deeply ashamed.

Diet trends have come and gone, but never have there been so many Foodphobic, elimination-based diets as there are now. These diet programs, including Whole30, Paleo, Keto, etc., all institute food rules and promote Foodphobia – the avoidance, which can lead to fear of specific food items that are defined as “bad.”

Diets in disguise

Make no doubt about it: Paleo, Whole30, Clean Eating, and other “lifestyles” that promote eliminating certain foods are diets in disguise. Even vegetarianism and veganism, which have the added appeal of spirituality and animal politics, has a historical and powerful weight loss message.

Foodphobic diets

Here are some examples of Foodphobic diets that function based on our fear that particular foods will make us fat and unhealthy, and that eliminating those foods will make us thin and enlightened:

  • The Paleo diet promises a “cleaner” body by eliminating grains, beans, soy, dairy, and certain vegetable oils.
  • The Whole30 diet promises to reset and heal your relationship with food by eliminating dairy and legumes.
  • Detox diets promise to cleanse the body toxins by eliminating almost all foods except juices and raw vegetables. (It is important to note that as long as we have a functioning liver, our body naturally removes toxins.)
  • Vegetarian/Vegan diets suggest that weight gain is caused by hormones injected in livestock and promote eliminating all meat products and all animal products, respectively.
  • Clean Eating diets promise weight loss by eliminating any food that has been processed beyond harvest.
  • Grain-free diets promote the idea that a multitude of human health problems can be linked to eating grains, and promote eliminating grains entirely from our diets.
  • Fasting diets promote health by eliminating all food from our bodies for various periods of time.

Each of these diets claims that the secret to full health and wellness lies in exclusively in the food we eat. They all claim science and data to back up their claims, but their most powerful tool is marketing. Billions of dollars are spent on slick marketing campaigns and even full-length “documentaries” to sell us on these diets.

This is dangerous for those of us who are susceptible to eating disorders, because we often use eating behaviors subconsciously to pursue worthiness and goodness. By following one of these programs, we can hide our eating disorders in plain sight. When people comment positively on our weight loss (an indication of an eating disorder) we mention that we were “inspired” by one of these diets and people immediately honor our efforts, praise our dedication, and ask for tips or provide advice for being even more restrictive and successful on one of these Foodphobic diets.

FYI: the science sucks

It is important that all of these popular diet trends fail in the same way: they do not hold up to scientific scrutiny. The human body is incredibly complex, and we do not fully understand how eliminating elements, from calories to individual nutrients, impacts our long-term health. Even the programs claiming significant science fail when held to basic scientific standards. An excellent article in Vox covers the problems with health claims made in the What the Health documentary, and which can be applied to all Foodphobic diets: Debunking What the Health, the buzzy new documentary that wants you to be vegan, Vox.

Foodphobic books hide their true purpose


The diet industry includes hundreds of thousands of books, blogs and websites written to convince us that there is a single path to wellness. The greatest danger in diet books lies in their denial that they are selling diets at all.

Suzanne Somers and countless other celebrities through the 2000s promoted weight loss through various forms of caloric restriction and exercise, proudly announcing that you can “Get Skinny” by following their program. But both calorie restriction and exercise have been disproven as effective methods to achieve long-term weight loss.

No effective method for sustainable weight loss (95% of all people who lose weight intentionally regain lost weight, plus more within 2 years) has been found to date, but that doesn’t deter today’s diet books from promoting their weight loss promises by shrouding them in faux scientific, health, and moralistic claims that suggest we will be better, smarter people if we eat the way they tell us to. Weight loss is often not openly discussed (there are no modern books saying they will help you “get skinny!”), but is nevertheless a much-hoped for “byproduct” of Foodphobic diet programs that eliminate calories, nutrients and entire food groups.

Today’s moralistic claims are one of the most dangerous elements of modern diet industry marketing in terms of eating disorders. At least Suzanne Somers’ book was open about its weight loss goals and didn’t pretend to be anything but a diet. Those of us who are susceptible to eating disorders can find hundreds of ways to justify Foodphobic, highly controlled eating patterns at our local bookstore.

Diet books written by “lifestyle gurus” promise not just weight loss, but also a total life makeover. They can also masquerade as cookbooks (vs. diet programs) that promise to make us better people based on the food we eat, how we prepare it, and from where it is sourced. No matter how they position themselves, they are still sold in the diet category and essentially promote the restriction of food intake. This means they still follow the universal rule of dieting: 95% of all people who lose weight on a diet will regain it all, plus more, within two years.

Foodphobia and eating disorders

Foodphobic diets are just the latest of many marketing efforts designed to sell books, products, coaching programs, and more. Dieting is the single greatest predictor of eating disorder, which is why these Foodphobic diets, which sell themselves as lifestyles and NOT DIETS are particularly dangerous – many people don’t realize they or their loved ones are falling down the diet rabbit hole until the eating disorder has taken hold.

Foodphobic diets are the perfect foil for those of us who hide our eating disorders in plain sight. Many of us openly engage in our eating disorders by jumping from program to program, alternating between anorexia-style massive restriction and periods of binge eating and even bulimia when we are in between diet programs.

All diets – whether they include counting calories, adding complicated food rules, removing items from our diet or restricting oneself to juices for periods of time – exert significant stress on the body, raising cortisol levels and leading to long-term negative health impacts. By selling these diets as “healthy lifestyles,” they are selling weight loss under the shroud of goodness, which is incredibly tempting for anyone susceptible to an eating disorder.

Ginny Jones is the editor of She writes about parenting, body image, disordered eating, and eating disorders. Ginny is also a Parent Coach who helps parents handle their kids’ food and body issues.

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