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Does Dieting Cause Eating Disorders?

Is Weight Cycling the Enemy?

You see them all the time- ads that promise you can “Lose 20 pounds in just 3 days!” If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Yet in our weight-obsessed culture, more than 61 billion dollars are spent on these fad diet products every year.  While it may be tempting to follow a popular diet scam, many of these trendy diets simply don’t work. The results are often a ‘yo-yo’ or Weight Cycling effect. 97% of most dieters gain back all of their weight, and often, more pounds. This form of weight cycling may ultimately harm the physical health of our teens and adolescents more than a little extra weight ever will. Can popular fads like diet pills, juice cleanses, metabolism-boosting supplements, and diets that only focus on “good foods” also be a gateway to eating disorders?

Why We Diet?

One of the cultural attitudes that drive America’s $61 billion weight-loss industries is the idea that any extra weight is unhealthy and that being thin is always healthier. It’s hard to escape this message, and our kids are exposed to it very early in life. In a survey of American girls elementary school girls that read magazines, nearly 70% say that the pictures influence their concept of the ideal body shape. Almost half say these pictures make them want to lose weight.

Consider the results of these surveys on dieting among the young:

  • 42% of 1st-3rd grade girls say they want to be thinner.
  • As many as 25% of elementary school girls admit they diet regularly.
  • 81% of 10 year olds say they are afraid of being overweight.
  • 46% of 9-11 year-olds are “sometimes” or “very often” on diets, and 82% of their families are “sometimes” or “very often” on diets
  • More than one-half of all teenage girls and nearly one-third of teenage boys use unhealthy weight control techniques such as skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting, and taking laxatives.
  • 35-57% of adolescent girls engage in crash dieting, fasting, self-induced vomiting, diet pills, or laxatives.
  • Larger girls are more likely than smaller girls to engage in extreme dieting.
  • Even among clearly girls of average weight, over 1/3 are dieting.
  • Girls who diet frequently are 12 times as likely to binge as girls who don’t diet.
  • 95% of all dieters will regain their lost weight in 1-5 years

Our Unrealistic Standards of Beauty

Another big factor in our diet craze is the conflict between ordinary people and the slender fantasies that the fashion world and most forms of popular entertainment present. These statistics illustrate the dilemma:

  • The average American woman is 5’4” tall and weighs 165 pounds.
  • The average Miss America winner is 5’7” and weighs only 121 pounds.
  • The average BMI of Miss America winners has decreased from around 22 in the 1920s to 16.9 in the 2000s. (The World Health Organization classifies a normal BMI as falling between 18.5 and 24.9.)

Why Our Attitudes About Weight May Be All Wrong

Aside from concepts of beauty we see in images of models and celebrities, our attitudes about health may not be accurate either. Studies from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have repeatedly found the lowest mortality rates are among people with a body mass index that puts them in the “overweight” category. This research also demonstrates that losing weight doesn’t really improve health indicators such as blood pressure, glucose, or triglyceride levels for most people.

Body Image and Body Dissatisfaction

Most of us are dissatisfied with something about our bodies or our shapes. It’s rare for someone to think they are the perfect size. Dieting, or attempts to control weight, can be an indication of just how dissatisfied a teen or adolescent is with his or her own body size and shape. Besides being associated with the onset of eating disorders, weight cycling can be dangerous to your health.

Why Most Diets Don’t Work

Contrary to popular belief, research has shown that at least one-third to two-thirds of people on diets regain more weight than they have lost within four or five years, and the true number may turn out be much higher in a lifetime. Weight loss and ‘fad’ diets do not take teens or adolescent’s individual requirements into consideration and can this can cause them to feel hungry, experience low moods, low energy, and develop unhealthy habits.

The Price of Failure

Dieting, and failing to keep weight off, can also intensify negative feelings like guilt and shame around food which may ultimately contribute to a cycle of restricting, purging, bingeing or excessive exercise. 9.5 out of 10 people who lose weight through dieting gain back all of their weight within 1-5 years. Half of them gain back to a weight that is more their starting weight. For this reason, weight cycling is associated with higher rates of depression, eating disorders, and increased health problems.

The True Cost of Weight Cycling

Kids that go on diets that involve eating very little will usually lose weight, at first. But the physical dangers of yo-yo dieting can be serious. Within a few days, their bodies know they not being well fed and their bodies begin to save energy by lowering the rate at which they burn energy (metabolism). When a person begins to eat normally again, the body stores a greater amount of the food energy that was eaten because it is not burning as much energy, and this can produce the opposite effect- weight gain. When the weight is re-gained, an adolescent or teen may feel like a failure for not losing enough weight or get discouraged when they can’t control their weight.

Because they usually don’t work, weight loss programs may produce some unwanted side effects. These can include:

  • low self-esteem
  • more weight gain due to lowered metabolism
  • emotional distress

Health Risks

There are also health risks to losing and then gaining weight over and over again. The “yo-yo” effect of weight cycling can increases the chance of dying from heart disease. For yo-yo dieters, it’s 70% higher than people with a stable weight.

Dr. Jean-Pierre Montani, a physiology professor at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland, one of the lead authors of an international study, told U.S News and World Report, “Weight cycling may lead to cardiovascular and metabolic disorders (such as hypertension and diabetes). And the risk of complications of weight cycling seems greater in people with normal weight.”

Why Dieting is So Dangerous to Young People

Australia’s National Eating Disorder Collaboration cautions that restrictive dieting is not only ineffective for weight loss, it’s especially unhealthy for teens and adolescents. For persons who are genetically predisposed to eating disorders, dieting can be the often be a catalyst for heightened obsessions about weight and food.

Disordered Eating

‘Disordered eating is defined as a disturbed and unhealthy eating pattern that can include restrictive dieting, compulsive eating or skipping meals. Disordered eating can include many of the symptoms of the major feeding and eating disorders such as

  • Anorexia Nervosa
  • Bulimia Nervosa,
  • Binge Eating Disorder
  • Other Specified Feeding and Eating Disorders (OSFED)
  • Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID)

Disordered eating is the most common indication of the development of an eating disorder. Disordered eating can have a destructive impact upon a teen or adolescent’s life. These behavior patterns are often linked to a reduced ability to cope with stressful situations. Evidence shows that adolescents with eating disorders experience a marked increase in suicidal thoughts and behaviors.

Red Flags

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

Losing the Battle

Feelings of guilt and failure are common among kids that engage in disordered eating. These feelings can arise as a result of binge eating, ‘breaking’ a diet, or gaining weight. A person with disordered eating behaviors may isolate themselves for fear of socializing in situations that involve food, and this isolation may contribute to low self-esteem and significant emotional impairment as well.

Eating Disorders

Dieting may not be the actual cause of eating disorders, but it’s clearly the number one cause of the onset of an eating disorder. And the health risks associated with eating disorders can be severe. Among people with mental health disorders, those that suffer from eating disorders have the highest mortality rate. According to Australia’s National Eating Disorder Collaboration, teens and adolescents at risk for Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, Binge Eating or Other Specified Feeding and Eating Disorders (OSFED) may experience:

  • Weight gain or fluctuation
  • Extreme weight loss
  • Osteoporosis – a condition that leads to bones becoming fragile and easily fractured
  • Fatigue and poor sleep quality
  • Constipation and/or diarrhea
  • Headaches
  • Muscle cramps

With the right support and treatment, a teen or adolescent can learn how to get their bodies functioning at full capacity again. Seeking help early with an effective treatment program can help them reverse the adverse effects of disordered eating and restore emotional, mental and physical health.

Recovery Is Always Possible

If someone you love has the symptoms of disordered eating or a major eating disorder, Center For Discovery  can help. We understand that health comes in all sizes. We’ve been helping families find their way to lifelong recovery for nearly 20 years. Our personalized behavior modification programs are tailored to fit your family’s needs. Center For Discovery provides integrated multi-faceted levels of care that range from residential treatment, intensive outpatient treatment, to partial hospitalization for adolescents and teens that are struggling with eating disorders, depression, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, self-harm behaviors, gender identity, oppositional defiant disorder, and most serious mental health disorders.

Call Us Now at 800.760.3934

Call today and speak with one of our highly trained admission specialists. Or take a free assessment or experience our virtual tours to see the treatment center closest to you. All calls are completely FREE and completely confidential.



The National Eating Disorders Association: Get the Facts. Retrieved October 25, 2016.

National Eating Disorder Collaboration: Disordered Eating and Dieting. Retrieved October 25, 2016.

The Health Unit: Nutrition – Dieting & Eating Disorders. Retrieved October 25, 2016.

Eating Disorder Hope: Diet Fads and Eating Disorders, by Crystal Karges, MS, RDN, IBCLC and Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC. Retrieved October 25, 2016.

MedicineNet.com: Weight Cycling…Facts About “Yo-Yo” Dieting. Retrieved October 25, 2016.

U.S. News and World Report: The Ups and Downs of ‘Yo-Yo’ Dieting, by Karen Pallarito. Retrieved October 25, 2016.

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