Disordered eating and dieting - Eating Disorders Victoria
Home ~ Eating disorders A-Z ~ Disordered eating and dieting

Disordered eating and dieting

Home ~ Eating disorders A-Z ~ Disordered eating and dieting

This page talks about disordered eating, including the impacts of dieting, ‘clean eating’ and fasting for religious and cultural reasons, and provides information on why most diets don’t work.

What is disordered eating?

Disordered eating refers to a wide range of abnormal eating behaviours, many of which are shared with diagnosed eating disorders. The main thing differentiating “disordered eating” from an “eating disorder” is the level of severity and frequency of behaviours.

Disordered eating can have a negative impact on a person’s emotional, social and physical wellbeing. It may lead to fatigue, malnutrition or poor concentration. It can affect someone’s social life (when socialising is restricted due to anxiety around food and eating), and can lead to anxiety and depression.

Disordered eating behaviours and attitudes include:

  • Binge eating
  • Dieting
  • Skipping meals regularly
  • Self-induced vomiting
  • Obsessive calorie counting
  • Self-worth based on body shape and weight
  • Misusing laxatives or diuretics
  • Fasting or chronic restrained eating

Did you know?

Dieting is the single most important risk factor for developing an eating disorder. Girls who diet moderately are five times more likely to develop an eating disorder than those who don’t diet, and those who diet severely are 18 times more likely.1

What is considered ‘normal’ eating?

What is considered ‘normal’ in terms of quantities and types of food consumed varies considerably from person to person. ‘Normal eating’ refers to the attitude a person holds in their relationship with food, rather than the type or amount of food they eat.

It is normal to:

  • Eat more on some days, less on others
  • Eat some foods just because they taste good
  • Have a positive attitude towards food
  • Not label foods with judgement words such as ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘clean’ etc
  • Occasionally over-eating and occasionally under-eating
  • Crave certain foods at times
  • Treat food and eating as one small part of a balanced life

Mindful eating

Mindful eating is a simple-to-learn life skill which can lead people to enjoy a satisfying, healthy and enjoyable relationship with food. It is a skill that can help people break free from ‘food rules’ and begin to enjoy healthy, flexible and relaxed eating practices. Mindful eating is not a diet. Mindful eating is about the way we eat, not what we eat.

Read more

Dieting

Dieting is the number one risk factor in the development of an eating disorder.

Each year, Australians will spend around $310 million on weight loss and low-calorie food services and dietary supplements.2 Yet both the rate of obesity and the number of people with an eating disorder are increasing in Australia.

It is clear that while the methods used by the weight loss industry are rarely successful in helping people to lose weight, they can make people develop low self-esteem and potentially an eating disorder. The proliferation of messages about the ‘ideal body’ and the ‘dangers of obesity’, and behavioural responses to those messages — including people going on fad diets and engaging in both unhealthy and ineffective weight loss behaviours — is at the core root of this problem.

Physical effects of dieting

The strict, restrictive and often unsustainable nature of many diets can leave dieters feeling constantly hungry and deprived. Dieters often ignore this hunger for a short time but such deprivation can eventually lead to powerful food cravings and over-compensatory behaviour such as bingeing. This can, in turn, lead to feelings of shame and failure, which contribute to negative emotional associations with food and eating.

Fluctuating weight is common for people who diet frequently (‘yo-yo’ dieting), as most people regain all the weight they have lost after a diet within a few years. Diets disconnect people from their natural bodily responses through imposed food related rules and restrictions, which may overlook hunger, physical activity and a person’s individual nutritional requirements.

Dieting can:

  • slow the body’s metabolism (the rate it burns calories)
  • cause food cravings and an increased appetite, leading to over-eating
  • reduce the total amount of muscle tissue and bone density
  • cause constipation and/or diarrhoea
  • lower the body’s temperature in order to use less energy
  • cause headaches
  • cause insomnia and fatigue
  • reduce the ability to feel hungry and full, making it easier to confuse hunger with emotional needs

Psychological effects of dieting

Dieting can lead to feelings of guilt over ‘lack of self-control’, low self-esteem, a poor body image and obsessive thoughts and behaviours surrounding food. In addition, people who diet frequently are more likely to experience depression.

Competitive dieting

Competitive dieting is a dangerous phenomenon that can lead to an obsession with food and weight obsession, as well as disordered eating behaviours. Television shows such as The Biggest Loser have seen a marked trend in competitive dieting programs across many workplaces and gyms, whereby people are encouraged to participate individually or as teams to lose the most amount of weight in a specified time period, often for a prize or some form of reward.

Another example of competitive dieting can occur among secondary school students. In these instances, somebody may start a diet with friends and become obsessed with losing the most weight, leading to unhealthy and dangerous behaviours regarding food intake and/or physical activity levels. Competitive dieting may also occur in the context of physical activity, such as in sports. This can be equally as dangerous for the development of disordered eating or eating disorders, particularly among men.

Think only women and girls get eating disorders?

Eating disorders and males

Why diets don’t work

The restrictive nature of dieting does not work, as fad diets do not provide a sustainable meal plan for the long term. In fact, 95% of people who diet regain the weight and more in one to five years.3

Weight-loss and fad diets involve restricting food intake to levels that often leave a person constantly hungry and in some cases, lacking the necessary nutrients they need to maintain physical health and energy levels.

Physical reasons that diets fail

Famine response

When food intake is reduced, bodies respond as if they are in famine or starvation. This natural human survival instinct has kept our species alive for millions of years, slowing down our metabolism (the amount of energy we use) to maintain bodily functions when food is scarce. Of course, our bodies cannot tell the difference between a diet and starvation, so when it feels like it is being deprived of food, the famine response is triggered. This means less fat is burnt, making it progressively more difficult for anyone to keep losing weight and difficult to keep it off.

Leptin

Leptin is a hormone produced by the fat cells in our bodies. It exists to blunt the appetite when a person has had enough to eat, reduce cravings, increase energy and increase the metabolic rate. But when body fat decreases, so does the amount of leptin. Our bodies will therefore try to compensate for the loss in leptin, responding by increasing hunger urges.

Social and emotional reasons that diets fail

Food in social settings

Food is often associated with social occasions and family gatherings, such as going out to dinner or having a BBQ. People who are dieting often avoid social situations and family mealtimes so they aren’t ‘tempted’ by the food, leading to feelings of isolation and a loss of support.

The diet/binge cycle

When a person diets, they often get stuck in a cycle of food deprivation, feelings of extreme hunger, consequent binging and feelings of shame. The cycle can be very difficult to break and have a dramatic impact on the health and wellbeing of a person.

Figure 1: The diet/binge cycle

Need to have a chat?

If you are concerned about yourself or someone you love, our team at the EDV Hub are here to help.

Call, chat or email the EDV Hub

Orthorexia or ‘clean eating’

Orthorexia is a term that describes an obsession with eating healthy food. It comes from the Greek words ortho, meaning ‘correct’ and orexis, meaning ‘appetite’).

A person with orthorexia is fixated with the quality, rather than quantity, of their food to an excessive degree. Orthorexia can start with ‘healthy’ or ‘clean’ eating, then progress to the elimination of entire food groups such as dairy or grains, and then to the avoidance of foods such as those with artificial additives, foods treated with pesticides, or particular ingredients (e.g. fat, sugar or salt).

Although orthorexia is not officially recognised as an eating disorder in the DSM-5, it is a serious mental health condition that can cause extreme health complications. Although there has not yet been much research conducted on orthorexia, it seems that orthorexic behaviours and attitudes are common amongst people with eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorder.

The symptoms of orthorexia go beyond a simple preference and interest in healthy eating. A person with orthorexia experiences strong anxiety about their food choices and may worry about their diet not meeting their personal high standards of ‘purity’. They may become socially isolated as they withdraw from activities and people who do not align with their strict dietary regime. They feel guilt following ‘slip-ups’, heightened self-esteem when they eat foods that are ‘healthy’, mood swings, anxiety and depression. These are all warning signs that the disorder is progressing into a serious eating disorder.

Further reading on orthorexia

"Health Food Junkies" by Steven Bratman

Cultural or religious fasting

Many religions engage in fasting as part of their practices, such as in the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, the Christian season of Lent, or the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur. These practices are not harmful in themselves, but can be triggering to people at risk of an eating disorder, experiencing an eating disorder, or in recovery.

Most religions believe that you should not fast if you are not healthy enough to do so. This includes mental health concerns or eating disorder issues. Across the religions, fasting is often about becoming closer to your God(s), or refocusing your mind on spirituality. Ask yourself if fasting at this stage in your life will bring you closer to your God(s) or instead put your mental and physical health at risk?

There may be other ways you can observe your religious practice without fasting, such as a non-food ‘fast’, extra prayer, or giving back to the community. Think critically about what the purpose of fasting is, and whether it can be achieved through other actions. If you decide that fasting from food is important to your relationship with God, it’s recommended that you speak with your health professional and religious leader for support and guidance during this time.

Remember, the purpose of fasting is not to punish, and if there is a risk of harm, religious leaders will be able to work with you as an individual to create an acceptable alternative.

Lent

Churches have some variation in how they participate in Lent, but ultimately the rationale is to challenge yourself to become closer to God. Remember, you are not expected to fast if this is a health risk. If you have an eating disorder or are in recovery, the biggest challenge might be to not give in to the pressure to fast, and to seek God’s guidance through this time.

If you’d still like to fast in another way, you can consider the following:

  • Fasting from media and/or technology.
  • Fasting from negative self-talk, or from comparing your body with others.
  • Think of something you tend to buy in excess of your needs. Give up buying these during Lent, and donate the money you would have spent to a charity you care about.

Remember Lent isn’t all about fasting. You can still participate in prayer and almsgiving. Instead of giving something up for Lent, consider taking something on. This could be community service, extra prayer, or donating to charity.

Ramadan

In Islam, you are excused from fasting if you are suffering from a health condition. Ibn Qudaamah (may Allah have mercy on him) said in al-Mughni (4/403):

“The kind of sickness in which it is permitted to break the fast is intense sickness which will be made worse by fasting or it is feared that recovery will be delayed.”

 “The healthy person who fears that he may become sick if he fasts is like the sick person who fears that his sickness may get worse, they are both permitted to break their fasts.”

This could be interpreted to mean that if you are recovered (healthy), but fear fasting would cause you to relapse, this is valid reason not to fast. If you do not fast, you instead pay Fidya to feed someone for each day you do not fast.

Whether or not you decide you are healthy enough to fast, Ramadan may still be a very challenging time as your community’s behaviours are centred around fasting. It’s a good idea to set up create a supportive environment around you during this time.

Remember that in Ramadan, a person abstains from food not because the food offered up is bad, but because it is good. It is a way of resisting what is good for you so that you are also able to resist what is bad. However, if resisting the goodness of food leads you towards harmful behaviours or negative feelings, this denies the purpose of Ramadan.

You can still participate in Ramadan other ways. Ramadan is also about restraining anger, doing good deeds, exercising personal discipline, and preparing oneself to serve as a good Muslim and a good person.

Further reading on Ramadan and eating disorders

Yom Kippur

For many in the Jewish community, fasting is an important and difficult spiritual exercise, reminding them of their attachment to the physical, and helping them focus on teshuvah and spiritual growth.

For individuals who have an eating disorder or are in recovery, eating on Yom Kippur can actually be a holy act. Rather than finding ‘purity’ or ‘spiritual growth’ through denying yourself food, the act of eating itself can be an act of teshuvah.

Before eating or drinking, you can offer a small thought, or kavanah (intention), and the traditional blessing over that item.

Further reading

Yom Kippur and eating disorders

Hinduism

In Hinduism, there are a diverse range of fasting practices that depend on factors such as personal beliefs, local customs and preferred deities. Consider carefully whether fasting will help you refocus your spirituality and lead you towards peace, or if it may cause health difficulties at this time in your life and lead to spiritual conflict. There are also ongoing dietary practices that many Hindus follow that you may find difficult during recovery. You may like to work collaboratively with a dietician to create a meal plan which leads you towards recovery while maintaining your spirituality.

References

1 Grigg, M., Bowman, J., & Redman, S., (1996) Disordered eating and unhealthy weight reduction practices amongst adolescent females, Preventive Medicine 25, p.748-756

2 IBIS World, (2018), Weight Loss Services — Australia Market Research Report, https://www.ibisworld.com.au/industry-trends/market-research-reports/personal-services/weight-loss-services.html

3 Bijlefeld, M., & Zoumbaris, S. (2003). Encyclopedia of Diet Fads. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press

Was the page helpful?