Diets are prevalent in our culture. We receive countless messages pushing us to lose weight, to the point where it can dominate our thinking and behavior.
Can a diet actually cause an eating disorder? In some cases, yes, but it depends on many factors. Here is some information about what causes an eating disorder, and how dieting can trigger unhealthy eating patterns.
Causes of Eating Disorders
Eating disorders are complex conditions that usually have multiple causes. Genetics can play a role in making an individual more disposed to the condition. Often, a combination of environmental, social, and biological factors can trigger an eating disorder in an individual. Traumatic experiences such as physical or sexual abuse can also have an impact.
Like these other factors, a diet can be a precursor to an eating disorder. Keep in mind that not everyone who diets develops an eating disorder, and not everyone who develops an eating disorder engages in dieting. Rather, dieting is a risk factor for someone who is already predisposed to develop this condition.
Concerned about yourself or a loved one? See if an eating disorder may be present.
Characteristics of Diets that Can Be Harmful
There are several characteristics most diets share that can be harmful to someone at risk for an eating disorder.
Unhealthy Eating Patterns in Dieting
While some diets encourage health and balance, many instead focus on fast weight loss. These are commonly referred to as fad diets, and they often promote restrictive eating patterns that deprive the body of essential nutrients. This puts the brain in “starvation mode,” triggering a negative physical and psychological response. The metabolism slows down; the body craves food intensely, especially foods that give an immediate boost of energy (often high-fat and high-sugar foods).
Such unhealthy eating patterns can mimic eating disorder behaviors, such as binging on unhealthy foods, or ignoring hunger cues in order to keep dieting.
Obsessive Focus on Body Image
Diets are also linked to an intense focus on body image and thinness. When you focus on these factors too much, you may start to feel dissatisfied with your body. This can trigger feelings of depression, shame, and low self-esteem. It can also lead you to obsessively strive for thinness.
Diets Can Promote the Idea of Failure
Any attempts to change your eating patterns should be focused on overall health. Diets promote a false sense of failure when you don’t follow the “rules” or meet your weight loss goals. Additionally, studies show that most dieters will end up gaining back the weight that they lost. This can also feel like a failure. This negative mindset contributes to shame and low self-esteem.
Diets Can Cause Weight Fluctuations
Many people diet for a time, then return to old eating habits. Then, they will diet again and repeat the pattern. This causes frequent weight fluctuations that are not healthy. Researchers have even found a link between weight fluctuations and diseases such as diabetes and hypertension.
Frequent weight fluctuations can also be a sign of an eating disorder, so if you find yourself losing and then gaining weight repeatedly, you may be at risk.
Maintaining a Balanced Approach to Eating
Rather than dieting to achieve an ideal weight, focus instead on maintaining overall health. This is the most sustainable approach. It will also help you avoid relapse if you are in recovery for an eating disorder.
If you have ever had an eating disorder or are currently struggling with one, dieting can be dangerous. If your doctor has advised you to lose weight for your health, it’s important to do so with a balanced approach that emphasizes healthy eating and nutrition. Be sure to tell your doctor about your eating disorder, and consider working with an eating disorder treatment center to avoid a relapse.
Could You Have an Eating Disorder?
If you’re concerned that dieting led to an eating disorder in you or a loved one, it’s important to address it early on. Learn more about the symptoms of an eating disorder, or take our self-assessment to see if you or a loved one is struggling.