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The Link Between Dieting and Eating Disorders

It’s no secret that dieting has become the cultural norm, with diet products that promote a “quick fix” advertised constantly to consumers. Unfortunately, these products encourage unhealthy behaviors that involve intense restriction and are likely to fail.

So what is dieting?

Dieting is “a regimen of eating and drinking sparingly so as to reduce one’s weight.” Here, the goal is to alter one’s size, shape, or appearance. It may also refer to a specific kind and/or amount of food prescribed to someone for a special reason, like an anti-inflammatory diet to help lessen the effects of inflammatory diseases. It’s important to note that even dieting for medical reasons can contribute to the development of an eating disorder, especially as diet culture takes hold.

Diet culture focuses on body image and pushes the belief that thinness equates to happiness.

With that thought in mind, nearly half of all Americans have tried to lose weight in the past year. The rate is even higher among women. In total, Americans spend over 60 billion dollars on dieting and diet products each year, yet 95 percent of dieters regain their lost weight within five years. Moreover, dieting is associated with greater weight gain and increased rates of binge eating.

In recent years, we’ve also seen the idea of “clean eating” rise in popularity. Although it encourages eating nutritious but delicious foods as a way to practice “healthy” living, it still centers around a form of calorie restriction. So isn’t it just dieting with a different name?

Whether it’s dieting or clean eating, this harmful mindset often takes hold and leads to disordered eating.

The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) found that 35 percent of dieting becomes obsessive. Furthermore, 20 to 25 percent of diets turn into eating disorders. Given the pervasiveness of these messages about dieting and thinness on social media, young people who frequent the platforms are at greater risk of developing body image issues and disordered eating habits.

A recent study of 14- and 15-year-olds revealed that dieting was the most important predictor of developing an eating disorder — so much so that those who dieted even moderately were five times more likely to develop an eating disorder.

The link between dieting and eating disorders is even stronger among college students.

The fact that it’s a stressful time and involves a major life transition, often including a move away from their support system and home environment, increases the risk of developing an eating disorder. Other factors that impact their eating patterns may include greater independence, lack of access to affordable and healthy foods, incorrect knowledge of nutrition, less exercise, increased alcohol intake, and busy schedules, including an uptick in social activities.

If you’re concerned that dieting has progressed to disordered eating or an eating disorder for yourself or a loved one, it’s important to seek help. Reach out to a certified professional for an assessment to determine your best treatment option for a full recovery.

If you or a loved one is struggling with an eating disorder, reach out to Dr. Kelli Malkasian, PsyD, CEDS at Coral Reef Counseling, and schedule a free consultation or telehealth appointment today.


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