Oftentimes people may try a diet and then before long, lose interest, or decide they don’t want to restrict any longer. They simply stop dieting and go back to their typical eating habits. But for others, dieting can be the beginning of a much more serious problem and potentially a full blown eating disorder. In fact, studies show that at least 25% of individuals who engage in dieting will go on to develop a full blown eating disorder. So, what’s the difference? Why can some people try a diet and be just fine, while others spiral out of control into a serious illness?
There are a number of risk factors that make certain people more susceptible to developing an eating disorder or not. Factors such as having a relative with an eating disorder or other mental illness, having perfectionistic or inflexible (type A) personality traits, traumatic past or history of abuse, and co-morbid mental health concerns like depression and anxiety can contribute to whether a person goes on to develop an eating disorder. Additionally, participation in aesthetic based sports like dance or swimming, as well as problems with self-esteem can impact this onset.
Furthermore, the nature of diets themselves force people to spend more time thinking about food and weight. Regardless of the specific diet, it always involves some form of restriction, whether it’s the amount or type of foods a person consumes. With time and repetition, restriction can escalate and start to include other dangerous behaviors such as excessive exercise or purging. These behaviors also often become reinforced when dieters receive praise and positive feedback about any changes in their weight and appearance, leading to continued dieting. Individuals with the aforementioned risk factors may be more likely to reap additional benefits from their weight loss and control of their food such as a sense of purpose, ability to cope with difficult emotions, and feelings of having achieved something special. Thus, the initial straightforward desire to diet evolves into a full blown eating disorder.
In order to avoid the risk all-together of your diet leading to an eating disorder, professionals like myself recommend not participating in diets to begin with. Instead, focus on intuitive eating, working to implement balance, moderation, and variety into your meals. Giving yourself unconditional permission to eat all types of food can help prevent that deprivation mindset and dieting cycle.