When Does Dieting Go Too Far?

lettuce and tomatoes with tape measureIt’s not exactly earth-shattering to say we live in an appearance-obsessed world. Models keep getting thinner and celebrities keep resisting the aging process, with “normal” people stuck trying to live up to an unrealistic body image. According to Medical News Today, 80% of women say that they’re unhappy with their appearance and 80% want to lose weight. With so many people so unhappy with their bodies, it can be tough to tell when a diet crosses the line into what is diagnosed as an eating disorder, particularly in an era where fad diets reign supreme.

It’s important to note that a person can have an unhealthy body image without having serious eating or food issues. Many people who go on diets may be unnecessarily hard on their bodies or experience low self-esteem, but a diagnosis of an eating disorder involves a severely distorted body image and extreme health threats. Even when a diet doesn’t rise to the level of an eating disorder, it can still indicate problems with self-image, and people stuck on perpetual dieting may benefit from therapy.

Physical Well-Being and Diet

Eating issues can have disastrous physical consequences ranging from hair loss to heart attacks. One of the simplest ways to judge whether a diet has morphed into a diagnosable eating disorder is to examine physical well-being. When a person loses more than a pound or two a week, it could mean they’re not getting enough food. Any diet that requires a person to cut calories so severely that they can’t get enough nutrients can give rise to an eating disorder. And if a person develops serious physical health issues, becomes weak or shaky, tends to faint or have dizzy spells, or has very low blood pressure, it’s more likely to be a serious food or eating issue than a diet.

Fad Diets

It seems that every few months people are jumping on a new diet bandwagon, from Atkins to Paleo and gluten-free to raw eating. But not all fad diets are “bad.” Instead, the problem with fad diets is that they can be taken to an almost religious extreme, and this can lead to eating disorders. Some people who adopt fad diets begin to believe that even a minor deviation from the diet poses an urgent health risk. A person who leads a gluten-free lifestyle might, for example, refuse to eat foods containing gluten, even if nothing else is available. This habit can starve the body of nutrients and can become particularly problematic is a person is traveling, camping, staying with friends, or otherwise unable to follow the chosen diet.

A New Type of Eating Issue Risk

Many nutritionists are now acknowledging a new type of eating issue called orthorexia. People with this condition are obsessed with eating “clean” organic foods. At first blush, this sounds like a great idea, but even the healthiest of diets can be taken to an extreme. People with orthorexia tend to obsessively check nutrition labels and become perfectionists with their food intake, often eliminating entire food groups from their diet. Someone who demonstrates orthorexia might, for example, began as a vegetarian, become a vegan, then progress to eliminating wheat, all processed foods, any nonorganic foods, and any foods that aren’t local or seasonal. This can severely limit a person’s diet, often to only a few foods that don’t provide sufficient nutrition.

Psychology and Diet

People with eating and food issues generally have extremely distorted body images. Of course, it’s hard to discern what constitutes a distorted body image in a society where many people loathe their appearance. But generally, people with eating disorders perceive themselves as fat, even when the scale says otherwise, and often use adjectives such as disgusting to describe their bodies. A person who simply has a poor body image, by contrast, might be unnecessarily critical of his or her body but will convey less contempt for it.

Some, but not all, people with eating or food issues are already very thin. It’s a red flag when someone with a thin body says he or she wants to lose weight or seems to be willfully avoiding basic nutrients. Research more of the warning signs, so that you can be aware when a friend or loved one may be endangering himself or herself with risky eating or food behaviors.

References:

  1. Dieting can lead to eating disorders. (2006). Medical News Today. Retrieved from http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/releases/54635.php
  2. Eating disorders warning signs. (n.d.). ANRED. Retrieved from http://www.anred.com/warn.html
  3. Lankford, R. D. (2007). Can diets be harmful? Detroit, MI: Greenhaven Press.
  4. Sund, E. (n.d.). Orthorexia: An obsession with eating “pure” What Is Orthorexia? Retrieved from http://www.eatright.org/Public/content.aspx?id=6442471029

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  • Rhea

    November 8th, 2013 at 11:21 AM

    Having been down this road before, I can truthfully say that this is still something that I struggle with every day. I know in my head that I am at a healthy weight but that still doesn’t stop me from sometimes obsessing over what I am eating and how much weight I could be gaining by taking in this food or that. There are times when I feel good and feel at peace with my body but then there are other times, mainly this time of year when there is food everywhere you tunr that I feel at a loss of control and don’t know how to stop those negative food thoughts and body image thoughts that I have worked so hard to overcome. It isn’t very easy to control this I can tell you that for sure.

  • zara

    November 9th, 2013 at 5:06 AM

    Don’t you find that in today’s world, the word dieting alone is wrong to use? I more feel like we should use the words like changing your lifestyle or trying to improve our health over the word dieting, which still holds such negative connotations for so many of us.

  • Hank f

    November 9th, 2013 at 1:27 PM

    Those people who think about it all the time?
    Who let their diet interfere with going out and doing the things that they love?
    Or they even dread certain events because of the food that will be there?
    those are the people who are definitely taking the whole thing a bit too far.
    It’s one think to want to get healthy and lead a healthier lifestyle; but it’s another to let anything that you love fall to the side because you are afraid of self sabotage.

  • Gracie

    November 11th, 2013 at 4:32 AM

    I like to try to eat clean and healthy too, but I can’t imagine living a life where these kinds of thoughts dictated every little thing that I did.

  • ernest

    November 12th, 2013 at 4:43 AM

    Have noticed that most people automatically think that it is females who go through, but I think that more often than we know there are men struggling with this issue too, and often feel too embarassed to ask for help because it is typically such a female driven problem.

  • Nurse Shannon

    November 13th, 2013 at 4:41 AM

    when it consumes your every waking thought then it’s too much…

  • Janie

    November 18th, 2013 at 4:49 AM

    Anyone who has lived like this knows that this is a horrible time of year too with the holidays and all that food being around all of the time. It’s hard when you know that you need to make healthy decisions but you always get pulled back into not so healthy lifestyle choices.

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