A growing body of research is proving our culture’s fixation on fitness, weight loss, and what is perceived to be “healthy” eating—which are all part of a system of beliefs called “diet culture” to have an extremely detrimental effect on health and well-being–and lead to numerous negative health outcomes and eating disorders.4
Dieting involves restricting food intake and calories to induce weight loss. When researchers reviewed years of data, they found staggering results.
- Result in negative health outcomes
- Cause “yo-yo cycling” of continuous diet changes
- Not guarantee maintained weight loss
- Lead to long-term weight gain
- Place significant long-term strain on the body
- Worsen gallstone attacks, osteoporosis, and hypertension
- Increase inflammation
- Worsen body dissatisfaction, increasing the risk factor for developing an eating disorder
- Lead to healthcare avoidance
- Contribute to weight stigma
Weight stigma is the social rejection of those who do not have a “socially acceptable” body weight and shape, which, in turn, often leads to disordered eating.6
Diet culture and disordered eating signs and symptoms
Almost half of the adolescent population in the United States reports feeling body dissatisfaction and engaging in some form of disordered eating, both of which predict later risky health behaviors.5 Negative body issues can motivate people to lose weight, which they believe will improve their health.
But, although they have become socially acceptable as part of diet culture, diets of any kind increase risk of developing harmful disordered eating patterns and adverse health outcomes. And many of the practices diet culture promotes are actually examples of disordered eating signs and symptoms.
Here are some examples of truly helpful and healthy relationships with food, eating, and your body, versus common misperceptions about what is “healthy,” and, instead, are examples of both harmful diet culture behaviors and eating disorder signs and symptoms.1,3,4
- Practicing mindful eating.
- Eating until feeling satiated.
- Including physical activity in your weekly schedule.
- Acknowledging all foods fit and no foods are off limits.
- Paying attention to your body’s built-in hunger and satiety cues to determine when, what, and how much your body is telling you to eat, based on your level of physical activity and energy expenditure.
- Eating when your body’s cues are telling you it needs nourishment or energy, no matter what it is or what time of day it is.
- Eating cake, cookies, candy, etc., when you feel like it.
- Enjoying eating and food with friends and family at social gatherings.
- Accepting your body weight, shape, and size exactly as it is, because bodies come in all shapes and sizes, and weight is not an indicator of health.
- Obsessively counting calories, which creates much stress around eating.
- Eating so little as to feel starved, or overeating to the point of feeling uncomfortable.
- Exercising intensely for extensive amounts of time, to the point of injury.
- Labeling food as “good,” “bad”, or completely off limits, and feeling guilty whenever you consume a “bad” food.
- Feeling you do not deserve to eat that day unless you exercise or you must exercise if you consumed a “bad” food to burn off the “bad” food.
- Intentionally starving for hours to days at a time, and then “overeating” when you do eat out of extreme hunger.
- Negative self-talk and feeling guilty anytime you consume high-fat food. You may label this as “cheating.”
- Starving or eating in secret, which adds to social isolation.
- Obsessing over the numbers on the scale. If the number is not where you want it to be, you may “punish” yourself by exercising harder or not eating that day.
Signs and symptoms of eating disorders
Disordered eating progresses to a full-blown eating disorder when extremely unhealthy weight control behaviors occur regularly and frequently for many consecutive months.
Signs that someone may have an eating disorder include:1,3,4
- Binge eating what is considered large amounts of food in less than two hours numerous times a day or week
- Hiding or hoarding food
- Eliminating certain foods or entire food groups (may be seen as picky eating)
- Eating in secret
- Refusing to eat with people
- Avoiding social gatherings
- Excessive exercise
- Having strange or rigid food rules and rituals
- Purging behaviors (i.e., self-inducing vomiting)
- Taking medications to lose weight, such as laxatives, stimulants, ipecac, or diuretics
- Extreme weight loss or gain in a short period of time
- An intense fear of gaining weight
- Skipping meals
If you or a family member struggles with any of the above signs and symptoms, it’s critical to seek professional help as soon as possible.
Eating disorders often co-occur with other mental disorders, including depression and anxiety. Disordered eating adds to feelings of despair and demoralization, which include feeling:4
- A loss of meaning and purpose in life
- A lack of social support
- Hopeless, helpless
- A sense of feeling trapped or a personal failure
It's important to seek treatment for an eating disorder as soon as possible to avoid further medical complications and other health consequences.