Dieting | Eating Disorders Victoria

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

Both the rate of obesity and the number of people with an eating disorder are increasing in Australia. Interestingly, the number of people with both obesity and an eating disorder has increased at a faster rate than the number of people with either obesity or an eating disorder alone. It has been suggested that these increasing numbers may be related to the proliferation of messages about the dangers of obesity, and behavioural responses to those messages that include people going on fad diets and engaging in both unhealthy and ineffective weight loss behaviours. The weight-loss industry in Australia is worth over $635m, but it is clear that the methods used are rarely successful.

Research shows that women who diet severely are eighteen times more likely to develop an eating disorder. Women who diet moderately are five times more likely to develop an eating disorder.

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 which 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 amongst 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, e.g. in sports. This can be equally as dangerous for the development of disordered eating or eating disorders, particularly amongst men.

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