Fad Diets: Normalizing Disordered Behavior

Popular fad diets are getting more and more extreme. It’s no mystery, the less extreme ones don’t work, so as people get disillusioned with each successive (and unsuccessful) diet, the diet marketers must come up with increasingly novel hooks. Low carb gets lower carb, low fat gets lower fat, more and more foods and food groups are declared the enemy, crazier and crazier food rules are invented.

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The problem with this is that behaviors and thought processes that are legitimately disordered are becoming more and more normalized. Behaviors that, objectively, would qualify as a serious eating disorder are now considered perfectly appropriate, and reinforced by a culture that is becoming obsessively fixated on food, eating and weight. I’m going to list a few symptoms and warning signs of disordered eating, taken from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. These are not normal behaviors. These are symptoms of serious, potentially fatal diseases, with long term health consequences.


-Preoccupation with weight, food, and dieting.
-Refusal to eat certain foods, progressing to restrictions against whole categories of food (e.g. no carbohydrates, etc.).
-Anxiety about gaining weight or being “fat.”
-Denial of hunger, or use of ‘tricks’ to avoid eating, such as drinking large quantities of water.
-Development of food rituals and rules (e.g. eating foods in certain orders, at certain times, in certain combinations, etc)
-Withdrawal from usual friends and activities, perhaps in favor of a new social group that shares the same food rituals and rules.
-In general, behaviors and attitudes indicating that weight loss, dieting, and control of food are becoming primary concerns.
-Rigid exercise routine, compulsive need to ‘burn off’ calories.
-Regular intake of large amounts of food in excess of the body’s caloric needs.
-Regular use of inappropriate compensatory behaviors such as fasting and/or obsessive or compulsive exercise.
-Extreme concern with body weight and shape.
-Creation of lifestyle schedules or rituals to make time for binge-and-purge sessions (purging includes fasting and exercise to ‘atone’ for food intake).

I think if you read this list objectively, you will notice that many of these behaviors are promoted and reinforced in various fad diet communities.

You may be thinking I’m being dramatic. I’m not. These behaviors are not normal. We are being conditioned to perceive them as normal and harmless though, by celebrities and diet book authors and a media that portrays each new diet as a ‘healthy lifestyle alternative’. More moderate approaches, like walking and portion control, are ridiculed as ineffective and old fashioned by those same celebrities and diet book authors, while they portray public health scientists as evil corporate pawns.

‘Oh come on, Amber! Just because a person cares about their weight or follows a diet doesn’t mean they have an eating disorder!’ This is true. Simply engaging in these behaviors doesn’t automatically mean a person has an eating disorder. The problem, though, is that engaging in restrictive eating and rigid food rules can serve as a direct mediator between perfectionistic tendencies and eating disorders. Another study found that college students engaging in ‘normal’ dieting behaviors were already exhibiting many of the symptoms associated with anorexia and starvation. Dieting has also been identified as a direct contributor to the development of eating disorders. In essence, dieting can trigger eating disorders. So be careful. Many people start down the rabbit hole without realizing it, and before they know it they’re deep, deep in the dysfunction. ED has a tremendously negative impact on quality of life.

Moderate approaches like portion control, increased physical activity and modest calorie reduction DO work. They work slowly, which can be frustrating when compared to the rapid (but unsustainable) results extreme fad diets produce. Those rapid results are appealing, and reinforce the perception that more moderate approaches don’t work. But extreme diets normalize and reinforce behaviors and thought processes that aren’t healthy and can have very serious long-term physical and mental health consequences, not to mention the monetary costs of treatment and recovery.

If you are experiencing any of the symptoms listed above, or if your diet has begun to take over your life, there is help. Start at the National Eating Disorder Association’s website, or one of the other sites I’ve linked below, to find treatment professionals in your area, or talk to your doctor about a referral to a psychologist or psychiatrist with eating disorder experience. Your diet does NOT need to consume your life in order for you to reach and maintain a healthy weight. It is possible to eat ‘normally’ and healthfully without your days revolving around food and eating. You deserve a life beyond your diet.

More Resources:

http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/find-help-support
http://www.youreatopia.com/support
http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/eating-disorders/index.shtml
http://www.helpguide.org/mental/eating_disorder_treatment.htm
http://www.something-fishy.org/treatmentfinder/

Check out my ‘Stop Dieting’ blog series here and my ebook ‘Taking Up Space: A Guide to Escaping the Diet Maze’.

 

56 thoughts on “Fad Diets: Normalizing Disordered Behavior

  1. You’ve completely rocked my world with trying to deal with my PCOS. My mind is blown. I’m soaking up all your articles. I’ve been dealing with it so wrongly the whole time! Thank you thank you! What is your opinion on “weight watchers” to try to relearn how to eat portions? I have damaged my relationship with food over the past 20 years from fad dieting and quite frankly, orthorexia at this point. Do you think a program like that could help someone to eat normally again, or is that just another way to obsess about food in your opinion? :)

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  5. Very interesting article!
    I tend to focus on the end result/motivation to determine if something is good and healthy for someone (or myself). There seems to be a range of motivations from people who may have diabetes and need to lose weight to be healthier physically; to people who would be considered healthy by the average doctor but want to be thinner which is not health based as many may claim, and their motivation is vanity. It’s sad physical strength can so easily be sacrificed for looking thinner.
    One thing you highlighted that I’d like to point out is that it’s dangerous in the mental sense, anorexia is also physically harmful but it is a mental disorder. It involves extreme negative thinking, no self worth and destroys a happy and peaceful lifestyle. These things are certainly evident in people who may not be diagnosed anorexic. I’ve been both possibly anorexic and overweight, neither spectrum is healthy for the body or mind.

  6. Love this. I’ve thought for a long time that anorexic people are actually more efficient than the rest of us at what we’re all trying to do – or at least used to be trying to do. I think you’re the only person out there that makes a clear distinction between achieving a healthy body weight and disordered eating. Kudos to you!

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  8. Hey Kate, I only saw your comment now, since Amber’s blog doesn’t have a comment reply notification system. So good to hear from you! I check your blog occasionally to see if there is any update. Hope you’re doing well! :) I think it’s a good sign you are (and I too) drifting towards THIS kind of places.

  9. “These behaviors are not normal.”

    You are so right!

    What is “normal”? Eating a Standard American Diet, perhaps, and drinking half a gallon of fizzy kid’s drink every day. Limiting one’s fat consumption (because fat, as everyone knows, makes you fat). Filling up with low-fat products that have had sugar, flour, gum, colourings, flavourings, etc.

    The result? “Normal” is dying of cancer at age 35, of myocardial infarction at age 45, of a stroke at age 55, of diabetes at age 65…

    I am SO glad I’m not “normal”.

    • I think there’s a vast grey area between SAD and disordered eating. I’m glad you found something that works for you!

      • I think I’m well on the “disordered” side, as a hardline low-carber! Certainly I’m not “normal” in my eating habits… but 21 kg lighter, reversing the pre-diabetes, lowering the hypertension to low-normal, increasing energy and mental clarity—none of that is particularly normal either.
        Perhaps it might just be time to reconsider precisely what “normal means”… and SHOULD mean!

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  11. Hey Amber….Gosh what a great blog! If I had only found it before my own metabolic breakdown!! Yep…brittle hair, no period, zero libido (poor hubby), massive amounts of cardio (which I thought was keeping me a lean machine) and restrictive eating that I didn’t even realize I was doing. SO…here I am…I’m a healthy eater by nature and crave all things good for me, but do have a hard time upping the calories to get my body to regulate. Stuck with a sluggish thyroid by my own doing, and some new NOT so awesome belly fat that won’t budge the past couple months. I JUST started lifting this week (today was my third day) and while I’m not expecting to see results already (i’m not that far gone LOL) I am wondering what your thoughts are on how long it takes your body to start burning fat this way. Again…I’m a recovering cardio junky who only landed here because of an injury…stupid mortons toe! Maybe it was for the best. Any who….I would LOVE to pick your brain. I’m in the Palm Springs area. Are you taking new clients/consults?

  12. I love you! Thanks for doing so much good in such difficult times against such a monster (the diet/fitness/vanity industries). This is a good fight you’re fighting. David vs. Goliath. Vive la revolution!

  13. I think the line between doing the reading and deciding to restrict something because you feel the change will have positive effects on your body and restricting in a disordered way is a really, really hard one to tread. I haven’t managed it. And once you’re in a certain mindset you selectively look for any literature or opinion pieces that reinforces your restriction.

    I’m currently seeking help for eating disordered behaviour – and guess what! I’m also anxious and have OCD. Funny how quite a few of us obsessive types find food restriction.
    But as well as seeing a therapist I’m seeing a nutritionist – because I know that without a good idea of the best way to eat for me that any recovery I manage will be built on sand.

  14. I display a lot of disordered behaviour about food, but it’s because of a diagnosed allergy to dairy (for which I carry round an epipen.)
    It sucks, but what can I do? Attempts to fight my immune system generally end up with it winning, and me in hospital.
    I guess I’m seconding “Simply engaging in these behaviors doesn’t automatically mean a person has an eating disorder.”, and also saying that for some people, engaging in restrictive eating and rigid food rules is actually literally a survival tactic. No, I can’t have a little bit, and yes, it will hurt. It’s an allergy, not lactose intolerance.
    I measure/weigh my food. It’s not something that my nutritionist wants me to do long-term, but over the course of a year it’ll help me adjust to what an actual portion size is. In addition to that, it gives me a feeling of control over food. Which, given that food occasionally tries to kill me, is kind of understandable.

  15. This is my favorite:
    Q: Do you eat clean?
    A: Yes, only grass-fed beef, no dairy, no gluten

    If that’s clean, throw me in the swamp cuz I’d rather be dirty.

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  17. I semi-agree with this, but some stuff you listed is a tad judgmental. I refuse birthday cake if it looks like it’s been bought from a crappy bakery and has 10 pounds of gross stale frosting on it. I am very picky about my desserts, not because it has to be “worth the calories,” but because I just don’t enjoy stale brownies and store-bought cupcakes anymore (unless they’re from a nice bakery or specialty shop. Mmmm.).

    Also, a lot of people just enjoy cooking or value their own cooking more than what they could get at a restaurant, so they buy groceries and cook on vacation. And, cooking your own food is cheaper, especially if you have a big family.

    I don’t really measure my food with a scale or measuring cups, but I do mentally measure. I think this can be a really healthy habit, actually, to be able to eyeball if your portion is about right or not.

    I do agree, though, that if thinking about food rules your life, there is probably something wrong happening. I restricted previously in my life, and my calorie allotment was too low, so I thought about food constantly: when do I get to eat next? What will I eat? Are there too many calories in that?

    It was awful. Now that I’m lifting weights, running, and restricting very modestly for fat loss, I’m much happier!

  18. I have been following your blog for a few months. It is quite refreshing. I had to lose weight (I was over 200 lbs and under 5 feet tall) and I finally found a way to eat sensibly, exercise regularly, and enjoy my meals without being obsessive. That was a journey in itself. I have chosen, for personal reasons, to eat mostly vegan (occasional eggs or dairy when I’m eating out) but not restricting anything within that category…I eat oils, and grains, pasta and bread, and fruit, and all manner of veggies. And, of course, most desserts. I have just begun to learn to enjoy food again, in a healthy way. It’s liberating. My weight is higher than the charts consider healthy, but my body is strong and works well, so I’m happy.

  19. Thank you so much for bringing this to light. I struggled with disordered eating most of my life, including having anorexia and bulimia about 15 years ago. I agree that we are a culture too obsessed with fad diets and the fastest way to lose weight.

  20. You are AWESOME! I love your message. I found your site through Matt Stone’s website and I am so grateful. I definitely have some form of disordered eating (despite me telling myself I do not) and am working on getting over it. I look forward to reading more of your posts. Your message is so important!

    • I definitely can check off some of the behaviors Amber lists above as well as doing/saying/thinking some of the things Anne lists below. Ack! All the while thinking it is normal and I am doing it for health ( yeh right, in addition to hoping it will SECONDARILY make my thighs thinner!). Yea, my low energy/ fatigue etc probably isn’t a gluten or dairy allergy it is a low calorie allergy !
      Thx again for eloping me screw my head on straight!

  21. The disturbing trends I hate (this does NOT apply to people with diagnosed allergies, diseases, etc):

    1. the desperate need to blame things on completely unrelated things, like omg I am so irritable, I can’t believe I ate that bread crumb on tuesday or holy shit my joints are sore, I bet there was fucking wheat in that sauce I ate after a 10 hour workout.

    2. the desperate need to have a food intolerance so you can just not worry anymore about the food. Bread? Yeah, I have an intolerance.

    3. the made up bullshit that has just become “common knowlege”. Oh yeah, soy is terrible and all gmo you should never eat it at all! And yeah, of course carbs cause weight gain.

    4. the made up bullshit words for blame and fear. I have a zit because I was glutened.

    5. People with eating disorders who have food blogs and pretend they don’t have ED and sell books, cleanses, juice diets, etc.

    6. Nutrition coaches with paid for weird credentials giving others advice when they are totally disordered about food.

    7. Overuse of some food and hailing it as an idol…the butter worship, the I just ate 10 egg yolks and a pile of coconut oil soaked vegetables and coffee with lard because I am healthy. Here’s a photo, look everyone at how healthy I am!

    8. The love hate relationship with the scientific literature. Like not believing all of the literature about benefits of soy, grains, etc and saying all studies are bullshit, but then citing studies and demanding for the literature and studies when it suits their needs. And really not knowing how to generalize findings to the appropriate populations.

    Ok, I hate everything but I still love you :)
    /rant

    • ‘ the made up bullshit words for blame and fear.’

      That right there sums up all fad diets and their invented food villains.

      • I am also a firm believer that some of the biggest paleo gurus out there have an eating disorder. besides all of the obvious, one of the biggest tick offs in their “my story” pages where they explain growing up and trying every diet on the planet, being obsessed with their weight, their workouts, their food, and just trailing from diet to diet until they found paleo, and “it worked” so they say, or at least theyre successfully making tons of money off of promoting the shit.

    • I love your comment and I feel your frustration. I have given up on just about all food blogs because I could no longer take the utter insanity of food villainization/worship. It took me a while to realize that I had actually developed an eating disorder, even though I’d convinced myself that I was just “eating real food” and “eating clean.” Looking back, I cannot even believe that my food fears extended to perfectly reasonable foods like wheat, fruit, and cottage cheese, for God’s sake! I am just done with all of it. I eat anything I want in moderation and to hell with the food puritans and their obsessive, nonsensical food religion.

    • In general I agree with you, but I’d just like to gently insert some thoughts on #1.

      I had awful joint pain, and went to my doctor a few times about it. He told me, in so many words, that it was just middle age and I needed to get used to it.

      Several months later, my son tested gluten sensitive, and I went off it with him, just so he wouldn’t be the only one in the family not eating gluten. And what do you know, joint pain gone. Entirely. I felt like I had my old body back. Eczema gone, too.

      No diagnosed allergy here. No chance to get a diagnosis, because my doctor wrote off my pain as normal aging.

      So when you hear a friend complaining about joint pain and blaming a gluten issue, she may be on to something!

      (But yes, I get that she also just did a 10 hour workout.)

      :-D

      Otherwise, I love everything you wrote here. And I’ve been guilty of a lot of it in years past.

    • I, too, am just about positive some of the biggest paleo gurus out there have eating disorders.

  22. SO TRUE!!! I just started a blog on WordPress.com (forwardandstrong.wordpress.com) about my journey through anorexia, binge eating, and orthorexia. Thank you for all your kind words and support for everyone! :)

  23. I’ve been thinking this for a long time. But I think it is very hard to find any form of normalized eating; with junk food, fast food, and the like available (and often being the flipside of a fad diet) it is very hard for people to find a middle ground. People just don’t see normalized eating any more.

  24. Dear Amber,

    What you are doing is so important for so many people. I take part in a Facebook group which gathers recovering orthorexic and just had massive backlash from a member because I told a former obese and highly OCD guy to stop freaking out and respect his body’s limits, maybe even eat some carbs after his exercise routines. Apparently, this is bad advice for someone having a FOOD OCD attack!
    I had panic attacks and OCD myself, and I know how restrictive behavior can trigger an endless cicle of high and lows.
    Sound advice is always harder to take. It goes against our perfectionist and vain ideals. I am learning to respect my body and I am starting to see eating and exercising as a JOY OF LIFE and not as a guilt ridden process.
    Thanks again, I will continue to read your website and pay no mind to people who think differently. This is my body and I will treat it with nothing but love, exercise and AMAZING FOOD. :)

    • What’s the name of that group? I could use it! Recovering from both disordered eating and OCD.

  25. A first-year psychology textbook warned that if you read the list of criteria from almost any psychological condition, you will feel that some fit. You should never self-diagnose!

    “-Preoccupation with weight, food, and dieting.
    -Anxiety about gaining weight or being “fat.””

    Sounds psychologically perfectly normal to me in as society that discriminates again fat people. It would be nice if society would change.

    “-Refusal to eat certain foods, progressing to restrictions against whole categories of food (e.g. no carbohydrates, etc.).”

    A badly formulated criterion as everyone refuses some foods, if only rotten foods or stuff you are allergic or intolerant against.

    Walking is a good idea. I am happy that calorie reduction helped for you. It never helped me and made me miserable and sick. With a paleo diet (not low carb) my hunger is gone and my health improved, my weight did not go down, but I am happy that I no longer needing to eat less as my appetite indicates. That is quality of life and not an eating disorder. The near continuous hunger of calorie reduction made me more food obsessed, more disordered.

    • As I said in the post, ‘Simply engaging in these behaviors doesn’t automatically mean a person has an eating disorder.’

      The fact that you’ve clearly had a viscerally defensive reaction to this post should give you pause, Victor.

        • When I took my 2 year old in for a Speech Therapy test, one of the questions was “Seeks rocking/climbing.” I mean, she was 2. She liked all kinds of rocking. She liked me to rock her. She liked to play on her horse. She liked climbing on things. That’s not what they meant, clinically. What they meant was that the child seeks these behaviors to the exclusion of all else. Same with this. I don’t like being fat. I don’t like how it looks or feels. When I start gaining weight, I think about what I need to do to stop. But at no time do I have “anxiety” about gaining weight or being fat. I just don’t like it. If somebody actually has anxiety, they probably do have a real problem. Same with the other stuff. Yeah, you probably think about dieting a lot in the first week and continue to show an interest as you make a healthy lifestyle a continued priority. But that’s not “preoccupation.” Yes, everybody thinks that something is nasty. That’s not a “refusal to eat” that progresses to eliminating categories. Anybody reading this should have a basic understanding of these distinctions.

  26. I’m just curious as to how you feel about intermittent fasting? It’s something I’ve come across while researching for my own diet (as in, what I eat, not a fad diet).

    I’m really wanting to improve my diet so that I can be healthier (i.e. stop going for the same recipes/snack foods because I’m too lazy/bored/uninspired) but it’s really hard to find information about ways to feed yourself without getting into those fad diets.

    Any resources you’ve used to refine your diet would be much appreciated. I really love reading your blog!

  27. Exactly!! In my opinion ”lifestyles” such as paleo, low-carb etc. are in most cases eating disorder in disguise under the name of health.

    Things that are NOT normal in my opinion:
    - thinking about food all the time, photographing everything you put in your mouth, …
    - planning your meals all the time
    - excluding a whole macro group
    - equaling a carrot to a candy because of its high GI (yes, I have seen that happen)
    - avoiding social gatherings that involve food (this is one of the biggest ones!)
    - refusing any ”unhealthy” foods at a party, for example birthday cake (it’s not like you go every week …)
    - bringing all of your meals on a vacation so your diet can stay ”clean” (!!)
    - concern about exercise when you’re on a vacation
    - measuring/counting food (yes I know some of that is necessary when somebody needs to lose weight, but it should only be temporary)
    - any other strict food rule/habit

    • Maybe I’m in denial of my ED then, but I don’t see how eating whatever and laying around on vacation equates to ‘being healthy’ while bringing your own food and exercising on vacation means one has a masked eating disorder.

      • You don’t have to lay around. If you’re on a seaside vacation, you’re swimming a lot. If you’re in a city, you’re walking around. You probably have places to see and things to do. I see no point in wasting time for example on a cardio machine, when you could be enjoying your vacation.
        I see young bloggers talking about how they went on a school excursion and brought larabars, oatmeal, protein powder etc., so they didn’t have to eat the food there, and it pains me.

        • Hum, I run whenever I can when on vacation. Cause I like to run. Sometimes when folks exercise it is cause they like it, not cause they are obsessed about it.

          • Agreed, I usually incorporate activity into my vacations for the same reason.

            Which is why I included the part about these behaviors not being inherently disordered.

    • Hey Jessy! I find it so weird we keep drifting towards the same places, aha.

      But I totally agree with you about life-style diets. For a really long time, I wanted paleo or primal or whatever the new ‘fad’ diet was to work.

      To me, it was even more weird to eat whatever I wanted! It still feels too good to be true to have no rules or anything… but my anxieties about food have gotten so much better. All strict diet rules do is make me stressed out and eventually I say hell with it, and break them anyway…

      And don’t get me started about people who think fruit (or carrots, god forbid) is bad because of high sugar content. I mean, it is fruit! As long as you aren’t binging on it, it is completely fine and healthy.

      • Hey Kate, I only saw your comment now, since Amber’s blog doesn’t have a comment reply notification system. So good to hear from you! I check your blog occasionally to see if there is any update. Hope you’re doing well! :) I think it’s a good sign you are (and I too) drifting towards THIS kind of places.

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