Facts about eating disorders and 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 behavioral symptom of most eating disorders, including binge eating disorder, bulimia, and anorexia.

Dieting – or the restriction of food and starvation of the body – is obvious with anorexia. It is less well-known that binge eating disorder and bulimia typically also involve restriction and starvation. In these cases, the person restricts for a period of time, and then binge eats and, in the case of bulimia, purges. In this way, the diet behavior actually underlies almost all eating disorders.

There plenty of science proving that 1) diets typically result in weight gain, 2) diets harm our health, and 3) diets lead to eating disorders. However, the $60 billion diet industry spends a lot of money convincing us otherwise. Dieting is a cultural obsession and is something that doctors regularly prescribe without evidence either that it works or improves health outcomes.

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, Mann)

The following facts are designed to help you understand that diets are unhelpful and harmful. While is it culturally normalized to diet almost constantly, this behavior is not helping us. Eating disorders and diets go together, and while not all dieters develop eating disorders, it is rare for an eating disorder to develop without diet behavior.

“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)

We hope that parents stop dieting and stop encouraging and enabling their children to diet. The link between eating disorders and diets is very clear, so we have provided some data and statistics to help you understand why dieting is a waste of time and dangerous to your health and that of your children.

Eating disorders and diets

In one study, people 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. [30] For individuals who are genetically predisposed to eating disorders, dieting can be the catalyst for heightened obsessions about weight and food.  Dieting also intensifies feelings of guilt and shame around food which may ultimately contribute to a cycle of restricting, purging, bingeing or excessive exercise. [27]

Here are some important facts about eating disorders and diets:

  • Dieting is the most common precipitating factor in the development of an eating disorder. [30]
  • 35% of “normal dieters” progress to pathological dieting and that 20-25% of those individuals develop eating disorders. [26]
  • Girls who diet frequently are 12 times as likely to binge as girls who don’t diet. [29]
  • Dieters are 8x more likely to develop bulimia or anorexia. [9]

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 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, and on buses, billboards, social media feeds, magazine covers, television, and every media imaginable.

This cultural obsession with dieting means that:

  • 62.3% of teenage girls and 28.8% of teenage boys report trying to lose weight. [29]
  • 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. [29]
  • 35-57% of adolescent girls engage in crash dieting, fasting, self-induced vomiting, diet pills, or laxatives. [29]

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 as a person increasingly bases their self-worth on their ability to diet.

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. [2]
  • Only 15 percent of dieters manage to maintain a weight of at least 22 pounds below their starting point for three or more years.[14]
  • Despite the data, consumers never blame the diet for failure, we always blame ourselves. But the problem is that diets fail us. [9]

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. [9]
  • 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. [1]
  • A single episode of deliberate weight loss increases the odds of becoming overweight by 2x in men and 3x in women. [22]

3. Diets don’t make us healthy

Most people diet because we are told by everyone (our friends, families, trainers, doctors, and other healthcare workers) 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. [1]
  • 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. [8]
  • Dieters are more susceptible to infections, bone density decreases, blood pressure increases, and damaged blood vessels. [6]

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

Here is a video we created to encourage parents to stop the dieting madness:


[1] Mann, Secrets from the Eating Lab

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

[4] Michael W. Green and Peter J. Rogers, “Impaired cognitive functioning during spontaneous dieting”

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

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

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

[14] Ayyat and Anderson, Obesity Reviews, 2000

[22] Pietilainen, International Journal of Obesity, 2012

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

[27] EatingDisorder.org

[30] Patton, et al, BMJ, 1999

[31] Tomiyama, A.J., Ahlstrom, B., & Mann, T., Long-term effects of dieting: Is weight loss related to health? Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 2013