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Are eating disorders linked to diets?

eating disorders linked to diets

Eating disorders and diets are closely linked. In fact, it is safe to say that if you never diet, you are unlikely to ever develop an eating disorder. Dieting is the primary behavioral symptom of most eating disorders, including binge eating disorder, bulimia, and anorexia.

The purpose of all diets is to lose weight. Intentional weight loss is based on creating a deficit of calories in to calories out, either by eating less, exercising more, or both. In other words, a diet includes eating less than your body requires to maintain its current weight.

Dieting is obvious with anorexia. Most people think of anorexia as a “diet gone too far.” But the vast majority of eating disorders cannot be recognized based on body weight.

Weight and eating disorders

In fact, weight is a very poor measurement of eating disorder status. Eating disorders can be active in any body type. The best measurement of an eating disorder is whether the person restricts food regularly, and every diet is based on helping people restrict their food. This means that diets contain the foundational tools for developing an eating disorder.

Anorexia is obviously linked to dietary restriction, but binge eating disorder and bulimia also involve periods of restriction and starvation. The person restricts for a period of time, and then binge eats. In the case of bulimia, the binge is followed by purges to compensate for the binge. In this way, diet behavior actually underlies almost all eating disorders.

Most people should not go on restrictive diets – based on the scientific evaluation: does it work? Is it safe? Does it have side effects? The answer for diets is no, not necessarily, yes.

Secrets From the Eating Lab: The Science of Weight Loss, the Myth of Willpower, and Why You Should Never Diet Again

Eating disorders and diets

In one study, teens who dieted moderately were 5x more likely to develop an eating disorder. And those who practiced extreme restriction were 18x more likely to develop an eating disorder than those who did not diet. [1]

Dieting leads to heightened obsessions about weight and food. Dieting intensifies feelings of guilt and shame around food. This may ultimately contribute to a cycle of restricting, purging, bingeing or excessive exercise. [2]

The connection between eating disorders and diets:

  • Dieting is the most common precipitating factor in the development of an eating disorder. [1]
  • 35% of “normal dieters” progress to pathological dieting and that 20-25% of those individuals develop eating disorders. [3]
  • Girls who diet frequently are 12 times as likely to binge as girls who don’t diet. [4]
  • Dieters are 8x more likely to develop bulimia or anorexia. [5]

This information would be scary enough if dieting weren’t rampant in our culture. The diet industry has convinced us that 1) we need to diet, and 2) diets make us healthier. Neither of these facts is true. And yet diet culture is pervasive, seeping into even the earliest years of our children’s lives.

Most mothers focus on “losing the baby weight” even as their children are just weeks out of their bodies. An obsession with thinness begins at home but is continued in the classroom, on athletic fields, in doctors’ offices. It’s also on buses, billboards, social media feeds, magazine covers, television, and every media imaginable.

Our cultural obsession with weight means that:

  • 62.3% of teenage girls and 28.8% of teenage boys report trying to lose weight. [4]
  • 58.6% of girls and 28.2% of boys are actively dieting. 68.4% of girls and 51% of boys exercise with the goal of losing weight or to avoid gaining weight. [4]
  • 35-57% of adolescent girls engage in crash dieting, fasting, self-induced vomiting, diet pills, or laxatives. [4]

Diets lead to a preoccupation with food thoughts, often becoming an obsession with food. [4] This mental impact is the source of eating disorders. With time and repetition, dieting can become an eating disorder. A person increasingly bases their self-worth on their ability to restrict food.

“It is unethical to continue to prescribe weight loss to patients and communities as a pathway to health, knowing the associated outcomes – weight regain and weight cycling – are connected to further stigmatization, poor health, and well-being. The data suggest that a different approach is needed to foster physical health and well-being of our patients and communities.”

Journal of Obesity, 2014

The link between eating disorders and diets is the reason we are anti-diet. We hope that, after reading this, you will stop dieting and discourage your children from dieting. Here are three things you should know about diets:

1. Diets don’t work

No matter what anyone has told you, the data simply cannot support any claims that diets result in successful, lasting weight loss.

  • Meta-analysis of hundreds of diet studies has shown that dieters lose an average of 5-15 lbs over the first 4-6 months of a diet. [6]
  • Only 15 percent of dieters manage to maintain a weight of at least 22 pounds below their starting point for three or more years. [7]
  • Despite the data, consumers never blame the diet for failure, we always blame ourselves. But the problem is that diets fail us. [5]

2. Diets lead to weight gain

Diets actually cause weight gain. This shocking fact is not debatable, and numerous studies back it up:

  • Approximately 95-98% of all dieters who lose weight will regain lost pounds and often end up weighing more than they did pre-diet. [5]
  • The most rigorous diet studies show that about half of dieters will weigh more 4-5 years post-diet than they did before they dieted. [8]
  • A single episode of deliberate weight loss increases the odds of becoming overweight by 2x in men and 3x in women. [9]

3. Diets don’t make us healthy

Most of us are told by everyone that we will be healthier if we diet. However, this is just not proven by the science.

  • Numerous studies have measured blood pressure, cholesterol, triglyceride, and blood glucose levels, and they did not find that participants’ measurements improved with weight loss. [8]
  • In the single largest diet study so far, The National Institutes of Health was given $15 million to create a diet that would prevent strokes, heart attacks, and death from cardiovascular disease. They reported that the study was “futile.” They could not find any proof that diet improved health outcomes. [10]
  • Dieters are more susceptible to infections, bone density decreases, blood pressure increases, and damaged blood vessels. [11]

Just for fun, check out this parody weight loss commercial:

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.

We have a research library containing the research included in this article and more!

[1] Onset of adolescent eating disorders: population based cohort study over 3 years, Patton, et al, BMJ, 1999


[3] Pathological dieting, precursor to eating disorder, Philadelphia Eating Disorder Examiner, July 18, 2011

[4] Dieting in adolescence, Paediatric Child Health, 2004

[5] The Diet Survivor’s Handbook, Matz, Frankel

[6] Gal and Liu, “Grapes of wrath: the angry effects of self-control”

[7] Ayyat and Anderson, Obesity Reviews, 2000

[8] Secrets from the Eating Lab, Mann

[9] Pietilainen, International Journal of Obesity, 2012

[10] National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases

[11] Why zebras don’t get ulcers, Robert Sapolsky

3 thoughts on “Are eating disorders linked to diets?

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  3. […] of struggles with body hate and dieting. Since dieting is a major risk factor for eating disorders, it’s important to address shopping […]

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