How Fad Diets Lead to Disordered Eating

Dieting is not considered a direct cause of eating disorders at this time. However, in some cases, engaging in fad dieting may contribute to the development of an eating disorder, such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa. In fact, research has shown that engaging in extreme dieting often leads to eating disorders, especially among adolescents and young adults. 

For this reason, it is important to be aware of the risks that come with dieting, especially when it involves fad diets with severe restrictions. When not properly practiced or controlled, these diets can have a lasting negative impact on psychological and physical health.

Statistics on Dieting and Eating Disorders

Research shows a strong connection between diets and disordered eating. Specifically, according to the National Eating Disorders Association:

  • In America, people spend more than $60 billion on dieting each year. 
  • Among people aged 14 and 15 years, dieting was the strongest predictor of eventually developing an eating disorder. 
  • 14- and 15-year olds who engaged in extreme dieting were 18 times more likely to eventually develop an eating disorder than non-dieters. Similarly, 14- and 15-year olds who engaged in moderate dieting were five times more likely to develop an eating disorder than non-dieters. 
  • Dieting is less common among elementary schoolers, with fewer than one in four girls reporting dieting behavior. However, among those who do engage in dieting, most can discuss calorie restriction and other aspects of dieting in an informed manner.
  • Dieting is associated with a higher risk of binge eating among both boys and girls. In fact, girls who diet are more than 12 times as likely to binge as those who do not. 
  • More than 12 percent of high school girls use diet pills and other substances to control their weight without permission from a doctor. 
  • 7.8 percent of girls and 2.9 percent of boys admit to inducing vomiting or using laxatives to control their weight. 
  • Dieting is even common among girls who are not overweight, with more than one-third reporting that they diet for weight loss or maintenance. 
  • As many as 57 percent of adolescent girls report the use of extreme dieting behaviors, such as vomiting, crash dieting, laxative abuse and diet pills. 
  • As many as 62.3 percent of teenage girls report that they have tried or are trying to lose weight. Approximately 58.6 percent of girls report that they are actively dieting. 

Dieting and Body Dysmorphic Disorder

The tendency to engage in fad dieting is strongly connected to body dysmorphic disorder, which is a mental health disorder that occurs when someone has an unrealistic, distorted perception of their appearance. In individuals who have body dysmorphic disorder, dieting typically serves as a strategy to solve certain “problems” the individual sees. 

For example, someone with body dysmorphic disorder may believe that their waist is too large even though it is completely normal. Because no real problem exists, the individual will continue to try to resolve the issue indefinitely without seeing any results. In many cases, this leads to complications, such as extreme weight loss or even the development of an eating disorder. 

How to Know When Fad Dieting Has Gone Too Far

For some people, fad dieting will simply be a phase that passes. Even some individuals who engage in fad dieting regularly will never progress to an eating disorder. However, for others, fad dieting is the beginning of a much more serious problem. Because it can be difficult to draw the line between fad dieting and true disordered eating behaviors, determining whether a real problem exists can be a challenge. In general, fad dieting has gone too far if the individual in question begins showing signs and symptoms of an eating disorder.

Anorexia Nervosa

In many cases, fad dieting leads to the development of anorexia nervosa, which is one of the most common eating disorders. Fad dieting may also lead to the development of bulimia nervosa or binge eating disorder.  If fad dieting has led to the development of anorexia nervosa, you may notice some or all of the following anorexia nervosa symptoms: 

  • Excessive exercise
  • Severe restrictions on food intake
  • Binging and purging
  • Extreme weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Fainting
  • Pale skin
  • Feeling cold regularly 
  • Thinning hair or loss of hair
  • Dry or yellowish skin

When anorexia nervosa progresses, it can lead to other physical symptoms and complications, such as low blood pressure, swelling in the arms and legs, dehydration and even abnormal heart rhythms. In women, anorexia nervosa can lead to menstrual disturbances, but this symptom is not present with anorexia nervosa in men

 If you are a friend or a family member, you may not see all of these symptoms because the individual in question may try to hide them. However, friends and family members of people with anorexia nervosa may notice other signs, such as loose fitting clothing or a preoccupation with body image. 

Bulimia Nervosa

If a fad dieting has progressed to the development of bulimia nervosa, you may notice the following symptoms: 

  • Episodes of eating an unreasonable amount of food at one time (binging)
  • Episodes of purging, such as with vomiting, laxatives or excessive exercise
  • Restriction of food intake between binges

In many cases, people who suffer from bulimia nervosa will take steps to hide their symptoms. As a parent or a friend, you may notice that the individual disappears to the bathroom quickly after eating. You may also notice that the individual avoids eating in front of other people, has sores on their hands or knuckles or has swelling in the cheeks, hands or feet. If the individual is using induced vomiting to purge, you may notice tooth decay and gum damage as well. As with anorexia nervosa, people who have bulimia nervosa tend to be preoccupied with their weight and have an unreasonable fear of gaining. 

Binge Eating Disorder

When fad dieting progresses to binge eating disorder, you may notice any of the following symptoms:

  • Evidence of episodes of binge eating (consuming an unreasonable amount of food in one sitting)
  • Avoidance of eating around other people
  • Feelings of disgust after engaging in binge eating
  • Food restrictions between episodes of binging
  • Hoarding or stealing food
  • Frequent talk of dieting
  • Noticeable weight fluctuations
  • Gastrointestinal issues (related to binge eating behavior)

People who have binge eating disorder are often preoccupied with their weight and the appearance of their body, similar to people with other eating disorders. 

Preventing Eating Disorders

When someone is interested in losing weight or improving their physical appearance, fad diets can be appealing. These diets often promise to deliver dramatic results in a short amount of time. To deliver these results, fad diets require dieters to engage in unsafe behaviors, such as cutting out entire categories of food, fasting for extended periods or restricting overall food intake considerably. All of these behaviors put dieters at risk of developing an eating disorder.

To prevent the development of eating disorders concerning fad dieting, it is best to avoid fad diets altogether. Instead of obsessing over the intake of calories, specific categories of food or macronutrients, it is better to focus on eating a healthy, balanced diet. By consuming a reasonable number of calories and ensuring proper nutrition, individuals can maintain the proper weight. If someone is overweight and needs to lose a few pounds, they should make dietary and physical activity changes only as directed by a physician.

What to Do When Fad Dieting Turns into Disordered Eating

If you have noticed anorexia nervosa symptoms or the signs of another eating disorder in yourself or a loved one, it is necessary to take action. When fad dieting turns into disordered eating, the situation will only worsen without intervention. The best way to deal with an eating disorder is through professional treatment. In a professional treatment program, the individual in question will learn how their fad dieting behaviors led them to develop an eating disorder. Effective treatment programs will also address any other underlying issues that may be contributing to the eating disorder, such as body dysmorphic disorder. Additionally, many patients who have eating disorders may have co-occurring mental health diagnoses that need to be addressed before recovery can be achieved. 

If you are interested in eating disorder treatment, it is important to compare all of the available programs carefully so you can make the right choice. Keep in mind that anorexia treatment programs will be structured differently from bulimia treatment programs and binge eating disorder treatment programs. Choosing a program that is designed to deal with the patient’s specific eating disorder is essential.

Day Treatment versus Residential Treatment

When comparing treatment options for eating disorders that developed from fad dieting, one of the most important decisions you will make involves the choice between day treatment and residential treatment. For example, while a day treatment program for anorexia nervosa requires patients to come to the treatment facility only during the day, residential anorexia treatment programs will require the individual to remain in the treatment facility both day and night until the program is complete. Day treatment programs tend to be less costly, and they allow patients more freedom during the treatment process. However, because the individual will be able to leave the facility at various times during the program, they may be more likely to engage in disordered eating, fad dieting or other unwanted behaviors, which can lead to treatment failure and relapse. 

​Seeking Treatment at Oliver-Pyatt Centers

If you have noticed anorexia nervosa symptoms in yourself or another person, or if you suspect that you could be suffering from another eating disorder, seeking professional treatment is highly recommended. Professional treatment designed specifically to address eating disorders will give you the best chance of achieving a full recovery and living a better life. 

At Oliver-Pyatt Centers, we offer anorexia treatment programs, as well as treatment programs designed to address other eating disorders. Whatever your situation may be, our goal is to help you understand how your eating disorder developed so you can overcome all underlying factors and return to a normal relationship with food. In addition to addressing the disordered eating behaviors themselves, we will also seek to treat any co-occurring mental health issues you may have that are complicating your eating disorder. Also, all of our programs aim to improve your nutritional status and teach you the skills you need to eat a healthy diet and exercise appropriately after your time at the treatment facility has come to an end.

To learn more about seeking treatment for an eating disorder at Oliver-Pyatt Centers, or to begin the enrollment process, please contact us today. We are a subsidiary of Monte Nido, offering both day treatment and residential treatment options for adult men and women of all genders.