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Banner: The real odds behind dieting: you’re 5 times as likely to get an eating disorder

The real odds behind dieting: you’re 5 times as likely to get an eating disorder

Our eating disorder expert explains why dieting can increase your chances of developing anorexia, bulimia and other eating disorders.


By Heather Gallivan, PsyD
June 10, 2019

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As the clinical director of an eating disorder center, I’ve heard many patients share their personal stories of obsessing over food and weight. These stories often include early adventures of trying diet after diet after diet – all with limited success.

Unfortunately, most diet plan disclaimers are limited to marketing lingo we’ve trained ourselves to ignore. Results may vary. Weight loss of 30 pounds in 30 days isn’t typical. One disclaimer you’re not going to find in any diet plan advertisement is that people who diet are much more likely to end up with an eating disorder.

Individuals of all ages who engage in restrictive dieting put themselves at risk for developing an eating disorder. National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) states that those who diet moderately are five times more likely to develop an eating disorder. For individuals who have a family history with disordered eating, the chances increase even more.

Food and weight obsessions

Dieting has proven to lead to increased obsessions with food and weight. It intensifies feelings of guilt and shame associated with food. This can contribute to a cycle of restricting, bingeing, purging or excessive exercise. When left untreated these behaviors can result in an eating disorder.

How dieting leads to anorexia

Dieting can lead to anorexia when a diet becomes so restrictive you have an imbalance of energy intake and energy expenditure. As this process progresses and you start to lose weight, you’re actually starving your body. This can lead to preoccupation with food and urges to overeat. There are also mood changes including irritability, increased anxiety and obsessive/rigid thinking, and a distorted self-image. When diets go too far, you can experience all of these symptoms and inadvertently develop anorexia.

The path to bulimia

Dieting can also lead to bulimia. When you diet, you can feel more hungry than usual. Diets often involve eliminating entire food groups or foods that you find tasty and satisfying. Over time, it can be difficult to resist hunger cues or the desire to eat foods you’ve eliminated. This can lead to binge eating.

When you “mess up” a diet, you can feel immense shame and guilt. This can lead to purging behaviors, including self-induced vomiting, over exercising, restriction and laxative abuse.

Know the red flags of dieting

Dieting can make you more likely to overeat and binge eat. You may also find yourself spending a lot of time thinking about food and weight. Being on a diet can distance you from family, friends and social gatherings.

Your self-esteem can be tied into weight and eating, rather than who you are as a whole person. You may cut out entire food groups or become very rigid in your eating, to the point it impacts your ability to participate in life activities. You can put your diet above everything and everyone else in your life. If you recognize these behaviors, I strongly encourage you to seek help.

Start healing today

Melrose Center has been caring for patients with eating disorders for more than 30 years. Our expert teams of therapists, dietitians and doctors provide comprehensive care to support recovery for the body and mind. Call 952-993-6200 to schedule an assessment with a Melrose Center expert. To learn more about how we heal eating disorders, visit melroseheals.com.

About Heather Gallivan, PsyD

Dr. Heather Gallivan is Clinical Director of Melrose Center. For more than a decade she has specialized in helping patients who have weight and eating problems. She is passionate about preventing eating disorders through education. And she says it’s key to inform people about how mass media and social messages affect our attitudes about body image and weight. Before joining Melrose Center, Dr. Gallivan served 5 years in the United States Navy as an active duty psychologist. Outside of work she enjoys spending time with her husband and two children, traveling, cooking and photography.

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