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When a Diet Becomes an Eating Disorder

“I just want to lose 10 pounds” “I want to be able to fit into that dress” “I want to be able to feel better” are common thoughts and phrases that individuals tell themselves when they choose to go on a weight loss diet. Regardless if it is counting calories, restricting carbohydrates or adopting one of the popular diets such as Atkins, South Beach, the Ketogenic diet, or the Paleo diet; most individuals choose a diet as a short term fix to lose weight without ever having a desire to adopt an unhealthy relationship with food. Unfortunately, diets are strongly linked to the development of an eating disorder, and according to statistics, 80%-90% of eating disorders begin with a diet; a diet that never ends and eventually develops into an unhealthy cycle of binging, purging and restricting. The transition from diet to eating disorder has no single purpose or single cause and usually progresses overtime unintentionally. While diets are generally about food and weight loss, the development of an eating disorder is about gaining a sense of control, numbing painful emotions with food, and earning approval and acceptance from others. Unlike diets, eating disorders do not end when a weight goal is reached because a weight goal will always be set entering into a never-ending cycle of weight loss and body dissatisfaction. The following are critical characteristics between a diet and an eating disorder:

The relationship with the scale

Diet: You are a household object that measures my progress but does not define my self-worth.

Eating disorder: Depending, you are either my best friend or worst enemy.

Individuals who are on a diet will often use a scale to measure their progress. Maybe their goal is to lose 5 pounds in a month, and as a result, they may step on the scale once a week to see if they have made any progress. Some people who diet may not even use a scale but will determine their weight loss progress by how they feel in their clothes. Individuals who are struggling with an eating disorder will use the scale before and after every meal, developing an intense love-hate relationship with the scale to the point that it causes them anxiety and internal pain.

Relationship with weight

Diet: I want a slimmer figure.

Eating Disorder: I want to be weightless.

Individuals who partake in a diet usually have a number in mind. They want to reach a certain goal weight, one that is within a healthy range. Maybe they want to drop two dress sizes or lose a certain amount of weight. When people have eating disorders, there is no goal weight. “Just five more pounds, just five more pounds” becomes the mantra to an insatiable, unjustifiable need. Individuals who are battling an eating disorder want to be able to count their ribs, to weigh nothing and therefore the only number they have in mind is zero. Size zero, zero pounds, zero calories… they become so focused on numbers and reaching the unattainable goal, to weigh nothing.

Relationship with exercise

Diet: This makes me feel good, and it helps me achieve my goals.

Eating disorder: I need to run this many miles to burn off every calorie I ate today.

Exercise is a lifestyle choice for individuals who are dieting as diet and exercise can have the healthiest results when done in moderation. However, individuals who are struggling with an eating disorder use exercise as a form of purging to rid the body of any calories they consumed throughout the day. They do not view exercise as a way to release mental tension or to strengthen their bodies, but instead, they only see it as a way to rid their bodies of calories.

Relationship with food

Diet: Oh, I shouldn’t. I will feel guilty later on.

Eating Disorder: I literally cannot put that into my mouth; it will give me a panic attack.

Individuals who are on a diet will feel guilty if they cheat; however their emotional well-being is not at stake; they feel the guilt, process it and move on with their day. Individuals with an eating disorder will allow this guilt to fester and to consume their thoughts to the point that it causes them intense anxiety, which develops into fear whenever they are around food.

Center For Discovery