Disordered eating and triggers to avoid: fad diets exposed

When most people think of eating disorders, anorexia, bulimia and obesity tend to come to mind.

But there are many more eating disorders which people do not recognise as being a problem.

Disordered eating can include behaviours which reflect many but not all of the symptoms of feeding and eating disorders such as Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, Binge Eating Disorder, Other Specified Feeding and Eating Disorders (OSFED) or Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID).

Disordered eating behaviours, and in particular dieting are the most common indicators of the development of an eating disorder. Eating disorders are severe and life threatening mental illnesses. An eating disorder is not a lifestyle choice.

Disordered eating can have a destructive impact upon a person’s life and has been linked to a reduced ability to cope with stressful situations. There is also increased incidence of suicidal thoughts and behaviours in adolescents with disordered eating.

We live in a Fed-Exable society. It takes a year to gain weight, we want it off in one week. There’s a lot of competition about how you look and it’s not just women, it’s men as well, that’s from younger men through to older men.

From cutting out carbs to dropping five kilos in a week, eating a high-protein diet to build muscle faster and hitting up the so called “superfood” of the month, it is all about a quick fix.

It’s like monkeys swinging through the trees, we grab one diet we swing on it for a while, again not being consistent, it’s not really giving me the benefits I want, so we grab onto the next branch, try that next diet.

A fad diet is a popular diet that usually promises weight loss. A fad diet often sounds “too good to be true” and does not follow healthy eating guidelines that support good health.

Fad diet red flags

  • Your weight loss program may be a fad diet if it:
  • Promises weight loss of more than (1 kg) per week.
  • Does not provide support for long-term weight loss success.
  • Restricts you to less than 800 calories a day.
  • Is rigid and does not fit into your lifestyle or state of health.
  • Cuts out major food categories (like gluten or carbohydrates) and stops you from enjoying your favourite foods.
  • Forces you to buy the company’s foods or supplements rather than show you how to make better choices from a grocery store.
  • Uses “counsellors” who are actually salespeople. Weight management counsellors should not make a commission from anything you buy.
  • Gives you nutrition advice that is based on testimonials rather than scientific evidence.
  • Promotes unproven ways to lose weight such as starch blockers, fat burners and colonic cleanses.
  • Does not encourage physical activity.
  • Why fad diets may be harmful
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Fad diets that are too low in calories may mean you won’t get enough energy to do the things you love. By cutting out major groups of foods, you won’t get the nutrients your body needs to be healthy.

If you lose weight too quickly and there is no support to help you keep the weight off, you could get stuck in a cycle of weight loss and weight gain. This yo-yo dieting is stressful for your body.

It’s no secret that we live in a diet-obsessed, social-media influenced, quick-fix seeking culture these days. New diets and workouts seem to crop up every week, thinness and fitness are valued, and we are quick to compare pictures, goals, and results across social media platforms and in day to day conversation. According to the Healthy Weight Network, in the U.S., we spend more than 50 billion dollars a year on diet products!

You may have heard of things like the Cabbage Soup Diet, the Master Cleanse Lemonade Diet, the South Beach Diet, and the Paleo Diet. While the guidelines, approaches, and research behind each vary widely, they share a common goal and expectation of quick weight loss and improved health. The websites for a few of these tout the following enticing claims:

  • “…teaches you how to eliminate cravings, reprogram your body, and achieve incredible results”
  • “So long obesity, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer, and high risk for heart disease, hello curbed appetite, increased metabolism, high energy and strong cognitive function”
  • “If you have a special occasion coming up or you simply need to lose weight fast, (this diet) may be just what you need”

Similarly, in recent years, workout crazes like hot yoga, P90X, the bar method, and CrossFit have gained popularity and massive followings, often related to the group support and motivational aspects that help keep people engaged.

What do all of these diets and workouts have in common? They represent something new and different, advertise compelling success stories of weight loss and body transformation, and generally offer a prescribed and sometimes rigid approach to eating and/or exercise. Does that make them fundamentally bad for everyone? Of course not. Does it make them potentially dangerous and unhealthy for those already vulnerable to disordered eating? It certainly seems that way.

Often with fad diets and workouts, there are “rules” dictating “good foods vs bad foods,” strict routines, and a social component that may provide motivation but also could increase shame for those who don’t “succeed” or follow through. In many cases, proponents of a trend will connect compliance with the regimen to improved physical and emotional health, increased confidence and self-esteem, and improved body image. Such promises are both enticing and unrealistic, and failure to achieve these goals can lead to disappointment, and decreases in the areas of expected improvement.

Obviously not everyone who adopts a new workout routine or tries an extreme diet develops an eating disorder—and many people develop eating disorders in the absence of these trends.  However, it is important to make thoughtful decisions about lifestyle changes, to consider the vulnerabilities and risk factors, and to be mindful of warning signs that adherence to a program may be headed toward an eating disorder:

  • Dieting, exercise, weight loss, and focus on body image become obsessional or “addictive.”
  • Refraining from usual social or family activities to avoid normalized eating situations.
  • Significant distress around missing a workout or being in situations where it is inconvenient or impossible to adhere to the parameters of the diet plan.
  • Restriction of calories or food variety that causes extreme weight loss and/or other symptoms of malnutrition.
  • Increased anxiety, depression, or difficulty with self-esteem in the context of not reaching diet, exercise, or weight loss goals.
  • Why are disordered eating and dieting dangerous?
  • Not everyone who diets will develop an eating disorder but it would be hard to find a person with an eating disorder who has not been on a diet themselves. Dieting is one of the most common forms of disordered eating.
  • Severely restricting the amount of food you eat can be a very dangerous practice. When the body is starved of food it responds by reducing the rate at which it burns energy (the metabolic rate), this can result in overeating and binge eating behaviours that can lead to weight gain and obesity.
  • Feelings of guilt and failure are common in people who engage in disordered eating. These feelings can arise as a result of binge eating, ‘breaking’ a diet or weight gain. A person with disordered eating behaviours may isolate themselves for fear of socialising in situations where people will be eating. This can contribute to low self esteem and significant emotional impairment.

Is it possible to change disordered eating and dieting behaviour?

Yes. It is possible to change eating behaviour, even if you have been engaging in disordered eating and dieting for many years. With the right support and treatment and a high level of personal commitment your body can learn to function to its full capacity again.

Seeking help from a practitioner with specialised knowledge in health and nutrition can assist you in reversing the adverse effects of disordered eating and restoring emotional, mental and physical health.