A Connection Between Dieting and Eating Disorders
DIETING AS A CULTURAL NORM
Dieting has become common and normalized in our society. So much so, that children are dieting at alarming rates. Nearly a third of children age five to six choose an ideal body size that is thinner than their current perceived size.1 By age six, children are aware of dieting and may have tried it,2, 3 and by the time they are seven years old, one in four children has engaged in some kind of dieting behavior.4 This trend for dieting and being “thin” is a relatively new phenomenon in the course of history. Less than one hundred years ago, Americans strived for “excess” body fat. They viewed fatness as a sign of success, health, and beauty. At this time, physicians were even encouraging Americans to gain weight, and they believed that a “balanced personality” was obtained by having a large number of fat cells. Between 1890 and 1920 specifically, America’s image of the ideal body completely changed from one of healthful plumpness to one where fatness became associated with sloth. This was due to numerous factors including the departure of the corset which left women dissatisfied with their natural shapes. The industrial revolution led to the standardization of dress sizes. Advances in food science including the discovery of the calorie led to a way to quantify our health, all while urbanization meant that more people were working in sedentary jobs with access to more and more overly processed, refined foods.
DIETS CAN LEAD TO DISORDERED EATING
Dieting may not be the cause of eating disorders, but it is often a precursor. The National Eating Disorders Association reports that 35% of “normal dieters” progress to pathological dieting and that 20-25% of those individuals develop eating disorders.5 The onset of eating disorders has commonly been associated with following restrictive diets, as they become a way for individuals to exercise control, counting calories and fat grams, limiting types and amounts of food, and obsessing about the number on a scale. Focusing on dieting and weight loss can be a “perfect” escape from true emotions and issues. Following a specific diet plan can also be a mask for some with an eating disorder to hide behind.
IF DIETS DON’T WORK, WHAT DOES WORK?
Deprivation and restriction do not work! It’s more about the QUALITY of the calories, rather than the number of calories we eat! Diets are simply not sustainable for the long-term because they do not fulfill individual nutrition needs, based on age, sex, and ethnicity as well as the emotional eating needs (for food satisfaction) – if you do not like what you are eating you simply will not stick with it! So instead, forget the calories and focus on food quality.
Cutting back on calories, the time-honored approach to weight loss, will work for the short term. But for most people, this seemingly straightforward approach eventually fails because the body fights back in predictable ways against calorie restriction through rising hunger, slowing metabolic rate, and the production of stress hormones.
What does work is consuming a balanced diet filled with a lager majority of whole foods (i.e. vegetables, fruits, unprocessed grains, high quality protein and natural fats). Whole foods in their natural state are digested slowly leading to a gradual rise in blood sugar without spiking and crashing. When you eat this way, blood sugar, hormones, and insulin change more gradually after the meal. Fat cells calm down and store less. Hunger decreases. Metabolism speeds up. This is a recipe for long-term weight control without restriction or deprivation.
To achieve this natural, healthy way of eating:
- First, replace processed carbs with quality, whole fruits, vegetables, legumes, and modest amounts of whole-kernel grains.
- Second, eat an adequate amount of quality protein including plant proteins.
- Third, enjoy high-fat foods such as nuts, nut butters, olive oil, because fat is filling and has minimal effect on insulin. Again, quality matters!
Any weight-loss approach that involves deprivation wears you down, biologically and psychologically. Ultimately, long term weight loss requires an individualistic approach that no main-stream diet fad can fulfill. Long term plans to maintain a healthy weight must focus on behavior modification, individualized meal planning, and an understanding of the sources of emotions that evolve around food, as well as balanced, therapeutic, behavioral nutrition. Only lifelong changes will keep you healthy for life.
1 Hayes, S. & Tantleff-Dunn, S. (2010). Am I too fat to be a princess? Examining the effects of popular children’s media on young girls’ body image. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 28(2), 413–426.
2 Dohnt, H. K. & Tiggemann, M. (2004). Development of Perceived Body Size and Dieting Awareness in Young Girls. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 99(3, Part 1), 790–792.
3 Dohnt, H. K. & Tiggemann, M. (2006). Body Image Concerns in Young Girls: The Role of Peers and Media Prior to Adolescence. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 35(2), 135–145.
4 Klein, H. & Shiffman, K. S. (2005). Thin is “in” and stout is “out”: What animated cartoons tell viewers about body weight. Eating and Weight Disorders, 10(2), 107–116.
5 Shisslak, C.M., Crago, M., & Estes, L.S. (1995). The spectrum of eating disturbances. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 18 (3), 209-219.