The Thin Line Between Diet and Eating Disorder

Woman staring at plate with tiny saladLet’s face it, hardly anybody has a completely healthy relationship with food. Unfortunately for our society, disordered eating is the norm, whether it’s crash dieting, stress eating, or whatever else you want to call it. Because of this, it can be really hard for someone in danger of developing an eating disorder to recognize the slippery slope of the diet they’re on until they’re well on their way down. Clearly, not everyone who diets develops an eating disorder, but research does show that 35% of occasional dieters become pathological dieters, and as many as 25% of those diets will progress into full-blown eating disorders. So when does dieting become dangerous? What’s the difference between a diet and an eating disorder? Sometimes the line is an awfully thin one.

A typical diet begins with a longing to lose weight. Often, this longing is coupled with a genuine wish to improve overall health and nutrition. A typical diet ends when either the weight goal is achieved or the dieter stops due to some inadequacy of the regime—too many restrictions, too few calories, etc. An eating disorder often begins the same way—with a longing to lose weight. In fact, 80% to 90% of eating disorders begin with a diet … but that diet never ends. The transition from diet to disorder has no one purpose and no one cause.

While diets are about food and weight, eating disorders become much, much more than that. Food and weight become all-powerful, and people with eating disorders use both in an attempt to better their lives (by gaining a sense of control, numbing painful emotions, earning approval or acceptance, etc.). Eating disorders do not end when a weight goal is reached because a new one will always be set. One begins to believe and behave as if “the perfect body” is attainable, and will strive for this allusion no matter what. Over time, a person’s self-esteem and general outlook on life become dependent on weight and appearance. At that point, nothing else matters.

A common danger in assessment by a professional not familiar with eating disorders is that too much emphasis is placed on a person’s weight and other physical symptoms. While these factors are often good indicators of a problem, they are not always “alarming enough,” if present at all. Equally important, if not more important, are the symptoms that cannot be seen—the symptoms in the mind. The psychological disturbances that both cause and perpetuate eating disorders are often the most difficult to treat. It’s important to understand that although someone does not fit all the criteria for a specific eating disorder, such as anorexia, bulimia, or compulsive overeating, they can still be doing a great deal of damage to their body, mind, and soul.

In a world where not being on a diet is abnormal, and restraint is a sought-after skill, being healthy and loving your body can almost feel awkward. I’m reminded of a scene in the movie Mean Girls when new girl Cady enters public school for the first time after growing up in Africa for 16 years. While her new friends nitpick their appearances in the mirror, Cady muses to herself, “I used to think there was just fat and skinny. Apparently, there’s a lot of things that can be wrong with your body.” It’s an unfortunate message, but a true one. The body-confident girls and guys are few and far between.

What about you? Are you balancing the thin line between diet and disorder? Do you feel preoccupied with food, weight, calories, or a desire to be thinner? Do you feel the need to rigidly control your food intake or exercise schedule?  Don’t let these obsessions rob you of another minute, day, or year of your life. Remember, you’re most beautiful when you are confident and accepting of yourself, just as you are. Then and only then will you be able to make positive, lasting changes in your life.

© Copyright 2011 by By Josie Tuttle, MA, therapist in Beverly Hills, California. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Sally

    Sally

    August 26th, 2011 at 6:19 PM

    I have toed that line between healthy and disordered for so long that it is hard to really distinguish normal anymore. I know that there are times when I will not go out or participate with others because I know that there is going to be food involved that I do not want to deal with. Literally this whole dieting thing has ruined me from having fun a lot of times and I know this and can rationally think about that ruin but it does not stop the behavior. I have never resorted to starving myself or bingeing and purgeing but I have to admit that I have been close and sometimes it does not feel like it would take much to push me over that edge.

  • joanna

    joanna

    August 26th, 2011 at 6:55 PM

    totally agree with you.its all too difficult to really know which side of this thin line one is on.it may seem completely normal about someone when they are dieting but recognizing the transition to a problem is hard to detect or see.

    and yes stopping yourself from that is a nice way because you have full control.but what if I see someone else going through this?how do I try and chip in with a little ‘advice’?thanks.

  • mari caroline

    mari caroline

    August 27th, 2011 at 6:30 AM

    It is so hard to know the difference!

    You know what it takes to be healthy, but what if you did those things a little more?

    Would that make you super healthy or just crazily obsessed?

  • Carol

    Carol

    August 27th, 2011 at 1:33 PM

    “Over time, a person’s self-esteem and general outlook on life become dependent on weight and appearance. At that point, nothing else matters.”

    I have been this person and had to make a concerted effort not to be this person anymore. Food controlled me- this one substance that is only supposed to give me fuel and energy instead filled me with fear and loathing. It is still a daily struggle but I am doing it.

  • vanessa

    vanessa

    August 28th, 2011 at 3:30 AM

    been on diets a lot of times but never let the diets get addictive or too risky for my health.whenever i felt that a particular diet was not good for me or made me weak,I have quit it immediately.

    the difference between a diet and an eating disorder according to me would be a diet allows you to eat to your heart’s content once in a while, you need to tell yourself to control at other times, and it doesn’t feel like you’re killing yourself by eating so little; whereas an eating disorder is like an addiction that you cannot step out of!

  • Jemima

    Jemima

    August 28th, 2011 at 5:26 AM

    until you have felt the shame
    until you have felt the judgement
    until you have felt the failure
    until you have felt that need to be perfect that can’t be reached
    you don’t know how it feels

  • SIMON

    SIMON

    August 28th, 2011 at 7:17 PM

    There r some diets that are okay in my books.But nothing drastic.Conrolling on days and eating healthy food,fruits and enough amount of vegetables is what is a good diets for me.

    Anything beyond this or any more drastic is just a disorder if you ask me.And if ‘disorder’ is such a bad word then well, you are harming yourself!

  • nate fleming

    nate fleming

    August 29th, 2011 at 11:02 AM

    indeed.the line between the two is very thin and more and more young people are crossing this line and causing a lot of harm to themselves and their bodies as a result.

    doctors need to advise them in this regard and we need more awareness as to how dangerous over-dieting could get.

  • Marc Weston

    Marc Weston

    September 8th, 2011 at 5:52 PM

    I don’t think there is a thin line at all. You’re either suffering from an eating disorder because you’re obsessing over your weight or you’re simply thinking you need to lose a few pounds.

    They are two different things and the difference is as vast as it is plain as day. If you start obsessing, then it’s a disorder at that point. It’s not like you’re going to wake up one morning and suddenly not be sure if you’re anorexic because the line’s so thin you can’t tell. There’s nothing ambiguous about it.

  • maisie f.

    maisie f.

    September 8th, 2011 at 7:31 PM

    It’s so easy to get an eating disorder it makes me scared to go on a diet. I can afford to lose about 20 pounds but I’m too paranoid to go ahead and do it in case I wind up with anorexia through no fault of my own.

    It’s very worrying how this can happen to men and women who started out just like me, where all they wanted was to get in shape a little more.

  • Paula

    Paula

    January 20th, 2013 at 9:18 AM

    Try reading Health At Every Size by Linda Bacon Phd

  • Tristan Kandles

    Tristan Kandles

    September 18th, 2011 at 8:37 AM

    Those statistics scare me senseless. 25% of diets turn into eating disorders, it just seems so high. I understand that a healthy diet is important to staying fit and athletic, but while on this diet you need have other goals and focuses in life. When diet becomes the only thing that matters to you, the chances of developing an eating disorder sky rocket.

    Diets should be combined with cardiovascular exercise for maximal effects. This way you’ll have more to strive for than weight. Instead of setting a goal that you want to lose 40 pounds, a much better goal is to run 10 miles. This way you’ll lose weight naturally without putting a strong focus on it.

  • Jo

    Jo

    January 30th, 2012 at 9:16 AM

    I have been on a diet since last febuary 2011, i have lost 5 stone, i wanted to get to 10st 7lb i have got there but i now want to be 10st, i go to the gym 4-5 times a week if i miss a day off from the gym i feel so bad, i burn about 900-1000 calories every time i go, and i am trying to eat 1000 calories a day,some days i can manage on less than that, people are starting to say things, like thats enough, but i am happy with the way things r going, and im so scared that if i stop i will gain it all back. I know i sound nuts!

  • Paula

    Paula

    January 20th, 2013 at 9:35 AM

    Given the research done by Linda Bacon Phd and others, it is time we totally rethink the diet, weight maintenance, weight loss idea we have been carrying around for a long time.

    It is long been established that media and fashion magazines have been showing us unrealistic images in which many of us at a young age have allowed to infiltrate and program our minds.

    What is astonishing is the “science” that has been touted as the Utmost truth about our health. This Health we are told, lies in our ability to maintain a certain weight. What is criminal in my opinion is that these very studies that we have easily taken as gospel, are paid for by non other than diet companies and drug companies that manufacture weight loss drugs.

    It is easy to see us this lie. Every part of us screams in protest that we must not be fat. Not even by 10lbs. But guess what? The studies that are not paid for by drug and diet companies, just curious researchers out to find truth, find that this insistence in being a certain weight is a recipe for unhealthy and not the other way around.

    Our bodies are set up to maintain a healthy weight not dictated by a magazine or a company. Even if you are over this weight by overeating, dieting and exercising to try to force it back does not work to achieve overall health. All aspects of health, mental, physical, emotional and even spiritual are destroyed by dieting to lose weight. Even if you maintain the weight loss. At what cost are you doing it? If you someone figured out Health At Every Size on your own and found your natural healthy weight, which changes, mind you, then great. But it is highly doubtful given what we have been taught. If your weight goes up for any reason, what is your response. Fear? Anger? Then, you are not in alignment with HAES.

    HAES works. It is a process that can be learned. It may take years to learn. You may or may not lose weight. But you will be saner and healthier and dare I say HAPPIER!!! : )

  • kathy

    kathy

    April 9th, 2014 at 3:26 PM

    Eating disorders truly are a slippery slope. I used to be anorexic, but now I binge eat. I feel like I flop flop between the two. Now I’m starting to try dieting again, even though I realize I shouldn’t. At least I’m seeing a counselor to help me out. To anyone who thinks starvation is the way out, it only makes you feel guilty, your hair falls out, and your metabolism slows down and saves every calorie to stop you from losing weight. Trust me it’s not attractive to shed your hair on other people. Your body physically rejects starvation so just don’t try it. I have found more success by eating healthier foods in normal, safe amounts, and treating your body well. You can’t get a nice body by torturing it.

  • Rc

    Rc

    April 10th, 2014 at 5:58 AM

    Very interesting and this continues to be such a prominent issue, especially in terms of how it links the mind and body.

    Like most women, I have at times struggled with viewing my body as inadequate despite not being overweight. Mostly I pushed myself hard with exercise and did not allow myself foods when I craved them-or then splurged and felt guilty and upset.

    But then came to a place where I accepted where I was at and how my body looked in the moment and even allowed myself to eat anything that my body desired-whether I considered these things to be healthy or unhealthy. Coupled with considerably shorter exercise routines, ‘allowing my body,’ loving it and honouring its desires has actually caused me to be in the best shape I have been in over 10 years. My fear in the beginning was that I was being ‘too lenient’ and I was worried that I would excessively eat the wrong foods…but the cravings for the foods I knew were probably not the best for me went away when my body was ‘happy’ again because I was working with my body and not against it.

    This is new and I’m enjoying the freedom and happiness it is giving me. A caring relationship goes a long way in achieving what you want :)

  • Dahlia

    Dahlia

    September 15th, 2014 at 4:37 PM

    This article is spot on. I struggled for many years with an eating disorder after being diagnosed with a debilitating disease. It started off as a diet to lose weight but it got out of control so quickly. None of my family noticed because I wasn’t your typical anorexic (bones sticking out) but I had bulimic and anorexic symptoms.

  • Alice

    Alice

    July 10th, 2015 at 3:56 PM

    I appreciate this article, however it is quite vague as to what that “thin line” is. In fact, everything I’ve read on this subject is either vague or waffling. I think this link regarding disordered eating provides a better description, particularly this part:
    “Examples of disordered eating include:
    Fasting or chronic restrained eating
    Skipping meals
    Binge eating
    Self induced vomiting
    Restrictive dieting
    Unbalanced eating (e.g. restricting a major food group such as ‘fatty’ foods or carbohydrates)
    Laxative, diuretic, enema misuse
    Steroid and creatine use – supplements designed to enhance athletic performance and alter physical appearance
    Using diet pills”
    Even here, though, in some places in the article (follow the link), it refers to “restrictive dieting” or “dieting,” and elsewhere it refers to “severely restrictive dieting.” Well, which is it? Is ANY dieting disordered eating, including that which doctors recommend, such as to “cut out 500 calories per day,” or to eat 1200 or 1500 kcals (for women)? Or is it just “eating less than 800 calories per day,” which the US medical profession defines as “unhealthy” dieting.
    I wish articles would take a more clear stand on this, and that especially EATING DISORDER PROFESSIONALS would take a clear stand on this.
    The ED psychologist who runs the ANAD free support group in my area says *any* dieting is disordered eating. In other words, any under-eating is not ok or healthy, in her view.
    I think there’s a lot of waffling in part because the medical profession keeps promoting dieting!
    All the articles like this one fail to refer to the fact that it is DOCTORS who so commonly recommend dieting. It is an insult to everyone at all a little plus-sized or more to present dieting here as if it is something that everyone just takes up on their own accord, given that anyone the tiniest bit plus-sized is told BY DOCTORS to a) lose weight and b) go on a diet and/or exercise (undereat relative to physical activity) to lose that weight.
    When are we going to start placing the blame for the *dieting epidemic* and *epidemic of eating disorders and disordered eating* where it rightfully belongs, on the doctors who prescribe it?
    Eating disorder professionals, STEP UP, and start being specific about what degree of undereating you think is or is not ok; start calling out doctors for prescribing dieting, and write articles FOR DOCTORS on the problems with doctors’ so-called “sensible” dieting.
    Thank you to this author.

  • Shane

    Shane

    April 27th, 2016 at 11:19 AM

    Bodybuilding is what took me from someone who was not body conscious to someone who was obsessed with my body. In bodybuilding, you kind of have to be. Your body is your career, and bodybuilding is your job. It can be hard to break out of that once you exit the bodybuilding world. Exercise, the thing that used to be my therapy, has since turned into a trigger for having body image issues. And that is what triggers my disordered eating. When you use food and exercise to try to sculpt a body without proper measures in place, as most people go about it, it can quickly go from healthy habit to disordered whirlwind very fast.

  • health

    health

    September 11th, 2016 at 6:35 PM

    I have been reading out a few of your posts and i can claim clever stuff. I will make sure to bookmark your blog.

  • Ansuya

    Ansuya

    March 25th, 2018 at 12:00 PM

    Un….obesity/overweight affects more people. It’s not the cholesterol, or diabetes, for the most part, it’s the diet. Yes, some eating disorders result in fatality, but statistically speaking, obesity kills, and one can say it’s the leading cause of mortality in U.S. Draw your own conclusions from this.

  • sally

    sally

    August 13th, 2018 at 2:44 AM

    hi my name sally i i’m not myself i went to the doctors last week and they think i might have an eating disorder now.my weight dosent stay the same i weigh in at 57kg and bMI is 20.7 and get i voices saying food is evil. i don’t know if it’s normal what i’m going through.atm its hard.

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