Why diets are dangerous and how they cause eating disorders

We need to talk about diets.

Specifically those restrictive weight loss diets.

Studies show they don’t work, they’re dangerous and they lead to eating disorders.It has been proven that people who diet are 18 times more likely to develop an eating disorder than those who do not.That’s right, 18 times more likely!
Golden, N. H., Schneider, M., & Wood, C. (2016). Preventing Obesity and Eating Disorders in Adolescents. Pediatrics, 138(3). doi:10.1542/peds.2016-1649

And the diet doesn’t even have to be particularly strict in order to result in disordered eating.

In fact,

two-thirds of new cases of eating disorders are reported by those who diet moderately
Patton, G. C., et al. 1999

As surprising as it may seem, a simple diet can truly destroy one’s life.

This guide explains the dangers inherent in any form of restrictive eating.
It shows how an ordinary diet can end up trapping you in a cycle of bingeing eating or bulimia – and, most importantly, it tells you how to recover.

“If you suffer from an eating disorder, reading this guide is essential for you”

Ali Kerr

Founder of HealED

Chapter 1

What’s wrong with dieting

It’s no secret that our society is obsessed with diets.
We truly do live in a diet culture.

Gossip magazines filled with pictures of celebrities who have either gained or lost weight recently.
TV shows producing a constant stream of various weight loss advice.
Advertisements for diet products plastered all over the internet.

We are constantly sold the idea that being thin will make us attractive, successful and content.

Worryingly these marketing strategies appear to be working.

According to some surveys, up to 50% of women are on a diet at any given time. This means that one in two women is dieting right at this moment!

This leads me to a question…

With so many people dieting, shouldn’t we all be thin by now?

If dieting really does work, why are we in the middle of an obesity epidemic?
Why is our society becoming increasingly unhappy, unhealthy and depressed?

Something just isn’t adding up….

Countless people have already learned from experience that diets simply do not work.

Furthermore, numerous research studies have proven that in most cases, dieting leads to weight gain in the long run:

Study 1: 95% Failure rate

One study has shown that within four years of losing weight on a diet, 95% of dieters gain back all the weight they have lost. At the end of this period, two out of five dieters end up heavier than they were before they lost weight.

Study 2: Identical Twin Study

A study of 1,600 identical twins has concluded that the twin who dieted ended up weighing more than the one who did not at the end of the study.

Four years later, the dieting twins still weighed more than their diet-free siblings.

Study 3: Ancel Keys

Even more importantly, the 1944 Ancel Keys Semi-Starvation Study – one the most famous and respected studies of the effects of food restriction on humans – also came to the conclusion that dieting does a lot more harm than it does good.

Its participants were put on a diet of 1,600 calories per day for 6 months.

Over time, they began to suffer from various side effects, such as anxiety, food obsession, depression and binge eating.

Once the experiment ended, some of the participants found themselves eating more than five thousand calories a day and continuing to eat even when they were absolutely stuffed.

(sounds familiar, doesn’t it?).

Studies Prove that Diets Don’t Work

It is a scientific fact: dieting causes people to overeat.

All dieting is yo-yo dieting in practice.

Whilst successful dieters seem to be non-existent, people who repeatedly gain and lose weight are abundant.

Over time, these weight fluctuations gradually lead to a heavier weight overall.

As a nation, we would be thinner if no-one ever dieted.

Considering all of the scientific research into the real effects of dieting, it only makes sense that the stricter the diet and food restriction is, the stronger the resulting binge urges grow.

It is as though every diet has an equal and opposite binge to counter it.

This is exactly why an innocent diet can turn into years of disordered eating.

Not only do diets NOT work. They can cause eating disorders.

 Dieting and starvation act as powerful triggers that switch on the biology and changes in the brain associated with the development of eating disorders.
All Party Parliamentary Group on Body Image ”Reflections on Body Image”, 2012).

The truth is that if you restrict your food intake, you are susceptible to developing disordered eating.

If the healthiest, happiest person on the planet restricted their food intake, they too would be susceptible to developing an eating disorder.

But how does that happen?

You didn’t go on a diet expecting to become obsessed with food.
You didn’t think that something as simple and straightforward as restricting your food intake could result in depression and critically low self-esteem.
You had no idea that a diet can morph into a disorder.

So let’s explore the relationship between restriction and eating disorders further.

In order to help you understand this process, I’ve broken it down into 10 simple stages. You might recognize yourself in them as you read on.

Chapter 2

How a diet leads to an eating disorder in 10 steps

Stage 1: You restrict your food intake.

There are many reasons why people choose to restrict their food intake.These reasons include:

  • Avoiding major food groups like carbohydrates or fats based on the misguided belief that it is healthy to do so.
  • Avoiding specific foods or, on rare occasions, entire food groups due to food allergies and intolerances.
  • Embarking on restrictive detox programs due to the assumption that they are beneficial to one’s overall health.
  • A direct attempt to lose weight (that is, unfortunately, by far the most popular reason).

Stage 2: You ignore your hunger pangs.

When your body is deprived of food, you start to feel hungry.

Hunger is simply your body’s way of informing you that its energy supplies are running low and need to be replenished.

For most of us, hunger can be described as an empty, irritating, insecure feeling.

If you are actively restricting your food intake, you might start to ignore your hunger pangs.
As your body fights back with hunger, you fight back with denial – and so the war against yourself begins.

Stage 3: You hit a plateau.

In the beginning, most diets do lead to some weight loss (although a considerable amount of it is a result of water loss rather than fat reduction).

However, after a certain point, most people hit a weight loss plateau. This means that your weight refuses to budge any further despite the fact that you keep on restricting your food intake.

Why does this happen?

Well, in response to restriction, your body slows down its basal metabolic rate or BMR. As a result, it expends less energy so that it can survive on a smaller amount of calories.

FYI

BMR

Your basal metabolic rate accounts for about two-thirds of your body’s total energy needs – because of this, even a small change in your calorie intake can have a huge impact on your ability to lose weight.

At this stage, a lot of people grow tired of deprivation and constant hunger, so they decide to quit.

However, people with perfectionist tendencies or an urgent desire to lose weight tend to continue. This leads them on to the next stage.

Stage 4: Your hunger begins to fight back.

As you continue to deprive your body of the basic nutrients that it needs for survival, you begin to lose touch with the subtle sensations of hunger and satiety, and start to experience a new sense of powerful, uncontrollable hunger.

You no longer feel mild hunger pangs.
Instead, your hunger comes in sudden, erratic bursts.

These episodes of intense hunger start to worry and scare you.

Staying in control around food becomes more and more difficult.

Stage 5: You begin bingeing on food.

Every cell in your body is now screaming out for you to EAT!

You are unable to fight back any longer.
You don’t understand why constant thoughts about food and unrelenting binge cravings are taking over your life.
You can no longer resist the urge to eat, no matter how hard you try.

Suddenly you find yourself bingeing on food.

It may feel like someone else has taken control over your entire body.

Part of you still tries to stop eating, but a different part is hell-bent on eating everything in sight.

Stage 6: Bingeing is followed by an intense feeling of guilt.

After losing control and bingeing, intense feelings of fear, panic, disgust and guilt arise.

You feel trapped.
You feel like a failure.
You promise yourself that you will never binge again and go right back on your diet the next day.
You refuse to give up on restriction, not realizing that as long as you keep on dieting, the binge urges will keep on coming back.

“This is simply how the human body works. Restriction leads to intense hunger. Intense hunger leads to binge episodes!”

Ali Kerr

Founder of HealED

Some people become so frightened by the idea of weight gain that they fall into an even more perilous trap of purging.
It can take on the form of self-induced vomiting, laxative abuse, diet pills or excessive exercise.

However, what these people often don’t realize is that purging causes the body
to go into a hypoglycemic state, which encourages future bingeing episodes.

As you grow more and more malnourished, the primal desire to binge on food becomes even stronger.

Stage 7: Bingeing gradually turns into an emotional crutch.

Bingeing on food causes a flood of endorphins to surge through your brain and this can temporarily infuse you with a warm sense of numbness or euphoria.
Many sufferers of disordered eating admit that they binge on food just to experience the endorphin rush that comes with it.

Over time, you begin to rely on the numbness that bingeing brings you – despite the guilt that follows.

You start using food as an emotional band-aid.

It blocks out uncomfortable thoughts and feelings for a while and gives your mind a moment’s rest from suffering.

After a while, you begin to wonder how you could have ever managed uncomfortable emotions without a binge fix.

Stage 8: You start to suspect that you may have a problem.

Declining health, constant anxiety, obsession with food, mood swings, worsening body image, feeling like you’re going crazy… It all takes its toll.

Your self-esteem plummets.
Your confidence shatters.
You begin to worry about your health and your life.

You find it hard to face the reality of what your life has become.

You mourn your lost dreams and aspirations.

Life turns into a series of desperate attempts to put on your “happy face” for fear of anyone seeing the real you and discovering your dark secret.

You might even start thinking that there is something inherently wrong with you.
Perhaps you’ve been born this way?
Perhaps you’re damaged, broken or you simply lack the strength and willpower to sustain a happy life?
In reality though, nothing could be further from the truth.

You are not broken.
You are not evil or damaged in any way.

What you’re experiencing are the natural side effects which have been brought on by prolonged restriction and malnutrition.

Stage 9. You attempt to recover, but do not succeed.

You might try to stop bingeing with the help of sheer willpower.
You might think that if you learn to ignore your binge urges, they will eventually disappear.

However, the urges don’t go away.

As long as you keep on restricting your food intake, they will not vanish.
On the contrary, they will only get stronger.

Willpower can only work when it comes to short-term recovery goals and general motivation.

No one has enough willpower to resist the urge to binge forever.

No one is capable of overcoming their natural instincts and defense mechanisms.
It’s just not possible.

Eventually, no matter how determined you are, your body will give in.

Stage 10: You accept the fact that you have developed an eating disorder.

There is a limit to how many times you can build up your hopes for recovery, only to suffer the pain of having them shattered all over again.

Eventually, you decide that accepting your disordered eating is easier than pushing yourself to confront the additional heartache and misery that comes with an unsuccessful recovery attempt.

Over time, you forget what having a healthy relationship with food feels like.
You forget your old personality and the old you.
You forget who you were before your eating disorder.
It seems like your life has always revolved around bingeing.

You accept this as your new reality.

Chapter 3

Side effects of a restrictive diet

The picture that I’ve painted here is not pretty and it may be difficult for you to accept.
But eating disorders are not pretty. Nor are diets.

What it all boils down to at the end of the day are the effects of malnutrition.

If you restrict your food intake long enough, you WILL become malnourished.
This will inevitably lead to your natural survival mechanism kicking in with full force.

It might be strange to realize that your body is capable of creating this big, scary, insatiable “hunger monster” inside of you.

There is nothing wrong or weird about this type of hunger.

FYI

Survival instinct!

In fact, it is healthy for your body’s survival mechanism to kick in when it detects that something is wrong. Your body is doing its very best to protect you and sustain your health because it thinks that you are in the middle of a famine!
Think of it this way: if malnutrition didn’t cause food obsession and binge cravings, human beings would have become extinct as a species millions of years ago!

It is primal, instinctual and unavoidable.
It kicks in naturally if you are malnourished in order to try and prevent you from starving to death.

5 Common Side Effects of a Restrictive Diet

Now let’s look at some of the most prevalent symptoms of malnutrition. They include:

1. An insatiable appetite.

You lose the ability to feel satisfied and this can be really scary.

Where normally you would feel too full, now it seems like you just can’t get enough of food – no matter how much you eat.

Numerous research studies have shown that people who restrict their food intake eventually become unable to stop eating when full. Their natural hunger and satiety cues aren’t working properly anymore. Massive, scary, powerful urges to eat lots of food turn into a serious everyday problem.

2. Powerful cravings for energy-dense foods.

Your body needs calories, so it craves energy-dense foods.

This is why products like chocolate and cheesecake can be so appealing to frequent dieters.

3. An increased taste response to sugar.

Normally too much sugar tastes sickeningly sweet.
Now you can never reach the point where it isn’t desirable.

This is because your body has actually increased your taste response to sugar in order to enable you to ingest more calories than your body so desperately needs.

Sugar drink study

A recent scientific study has concluded that when a group of individuals, who fell within the healthy weight range, were given a sweet drink to consume, almost all of them lost the taste for it after a very short time.

The underweight group, however, continued to enjoy it for much longer. This explains why chronic dieters are able to consume huge quantities of sweet foods.

4. Food obsession

Food is all you think about – in your car going to and from work, whilst studying, watching TV or chatting with friends.

You may even have food-related dreams.

5. Cravings for stimulants

As your energy levels plummet, you turn to stimulants such as coffee, tea and diet sodas to keep you going.

They can only provide you with a temporary relief though what you really need is food-based energy.

6. Changes to your brain chemistry

Whenever people restrict their food intake, they suffer from a host of psychological side effects.

Food restriction rapidly disrupts the production of serotonin and dopamine in your brain, triggering a host of negative psychological side effects as a result. Large-scale studies from reputable universities, such as Harvard and Oxford, have noted that dieters can experience serotonin depletion after just three weeks of food restriction.
Regardless of your circumstances or accomplishments, when your serotonin levels drop, so does your self-esteem and overall happiness.
As the brain continues to starve, it deteriorates further and becomes even more self-critical. This leads to outbreaks of various psychological problems, such as obsessive-compulsive behavior, depression, anxiety, general moodiness and poor motivation.
Furthermore, restricted eating triggers dysbiosis within your gut microbiota and this had a direct impact on your appetite, the foods that you crave and the intensity of the binge urges you experience.

Here is some interesting research on eating disorders and the microbiome.

Simply put, food restriction can and does, make you miserable.


Chapter 4

What this means for eating disorder recovery

So what does this all mean if you currently suffer with an eating disorder such as binge eating or bulimia?

This big one is this…

“Here at HealED, we truly do believe that for the vast majority of people, eating disorders, such as bulimia and binge eating, are mainly physical/biological issues, rather mental conditions.”

Ali Kerr

Founder of HealED

It’s not just us.
Science agrees. Studies show that:
“Treating eating behavior directly has been proven to be more effective than CBT in the treatment of eating disorders, even with severely affected individuals.” – Södersten et al (2017)
“There is no evidence to support the idea that resolving underlying psychological problems leads to full recovery from disordered eating.” – Walsh & Cameron (2005)
In fact, the most current research suggests that the positive effects associated with CBT may be due to the fact that normalization of eating behaviour is part of the therapy.

Many people remain absolutely convinced that eating disorders can be healed by focusing on the mental issues alone but the mind-body connection is profound, and it cannot be ignored.

For instance, an overwhelming amount of evidence now shows that physical exercise alleviates low mood, stress, anxiety and depression (Otto & Smits, 2011). In fact, physical activity significantly improves one’s life satisfaction and psychological well-being (Carek, et al, 2011).

It’s the same with eating disorders.

In order to recover, you must focus on addressing the physical aspects first

When you heal your body, you heal your mind.

This should be your primary concern and focus in recovery.

Whatever you do, keep in mind that in order to break free from binge eating and bulimia for good, you must first rebalance your body.

There are many other aspects of recovery – such as destructive habits or negative self-image – that you can address once that’s done. However, a balanced body will always provide a solid, stable foundation for the rest of your recovery. Everything else will be built upon these principles.

Studies have shown that once food restriction ends and normal eating resumes, adverse health effects disappear or become minimal. Most dieters, who have returned to normal eating patterns, have regained their health with minimal long-term consequences.

If you’re still restricting your food intake, if you suffer from disordered eating but desperately want to change it, remember:

once restriction is eliminated, so are its side effects

Chapter 5

Undoing the damage of a restrictive diet

The solution is, in fact, surprisingly simple.

And it can be summed up in one sentence.

Stop dieting and eat enough nutritious, balanced food spread throughout the day.

That’s it in a nutshell.

We can break this down a little further for you…


1. Eat enough food

Undereating leads to overeating.

To begin with, you need to start saying ”no” to diets.
They don’t work, they’re dangerous and they lead to eating disorders.

If you really want to stop bingeing, you’ll have to start eating enough food to satisfy your daily biological requirements.

For dramatic effect, I am going to repeat that above sentence and stick it in a box to emphasise how important that is.

If you really want to stop bingeing, you’ll have to start eating enough food to satisfy your daily biological requirements.

It can be really helpful to spread your nutrition throughout the day by shortening the gaps between your meals – they should be no longer than 3 hours.

Try not to graze in-between meals. This will help your body get into a much-needed physical rhythm.


2. Then balance your blood sugar levels

Blood sugar drops and spikes can be a huge binge trigger.
To balance your blood sugar ensure each of your meals (and preferably snacks as well) should consist of roughly 50% complex carbohydrates, 25% proteins and 25% fats.

If you stick to this simple ratio, it will gradually stabilize your blood sugar levels and reduce your sugar cravings. Over time, you can discover a different ratio that works best for you and allows you to feel full for longer.


3. Finally, insure you provide your body with proper nutrition

Aim to add more real, wholefoods to your diet.

You know, fresh vegetables, fruits, beans, whole grains, nuts, seeds and lean animal protein, such as fish, chicken and eggs – in other words, you should eat the types of food that your great-grandmother would have eaten.

This will help you feel REALLY satisfied after eating.


Recovery is always possible – and it is always worth striving for.

Of course, it is much easier said than done – especially if you have a long history of disordered eating behind you.

That’s why our qualified HealED recovery coaches are always on hand to guide you through this journey. They have all suffered from eating disorders in the past and successfully overcame them using our method. Click here to start working with one of our coaching team

Rebuilding normal eating habits naturally takes time.
But there is hope.
There is a light at the end of the tunnel.
You cannot help but reach it if you leave old habits behind and just keep moving forward.

Help us help others?
We’re a small team here at HealED, but we have a BIG message. We want to spread the word about the dangers of diets. If you found this guide helpful please feel free to share this guide via social media, facebook, twitter. The more people informed about the dangers of diets the better!

9 comments on “Why diets are dangerous and how they cause eating disorders

  1. sarah shanelaris on

    Great article. All so true. Wish I’d known this 35 years ago. Doesn’t mean recovery is easy when diet mentality still loudly screams it’s bad to put on weight and good to lose weight. Speaking for myself I’m terrified of eating better and more and weight going up and still having binge/purge episodes. Am in coaching and despite the hand holding and advice and encouragement I’m having really hard time. I pray those who have recently started on such a path learn from you sooner rather than later.

  2. Anonymous on

    Fully in the throws of bulimia and realizing how bad it has gotten. I feel very alone and scared. The cycle needs to stop now. I’m worried sick about my health.

  3. Alex Egan on

    I have had an eating disorder for 28 of my 42 years 🙁 a lot of new information about recovery has come up in that time, but I have to say that this article is the most pertinent, making sense, single source of information I have ever come across. That spans across therapist, psychologists, psychiatrists, nurses, internet, videos, blogs, articles, etc etc.

    I hope and pray I can somehow take this information in and it make a difference in my life.

    Thank you Ali and Richard.

  4. Lynn on

    Hello, does this apply to the 5/2 diet as recommended by Dr Michael Mosley? I was under the impression that the idea behind the 5/2 is that the body is less likely to go into starvation mode when the restricted calorie intake is only over two days a week. Thank you for all your helpful advice on binge eating.

  5. Susan on

    I had horrifyingly insatiable hunger and no one could tell me why or what was wrong with me. At the height of my food addiction, I was eating 16-20 cups of fruit and vegetables a day along with my fats and protein. The hunger was so intense it was way out of proportion to a normal hunger signal and was often painful, resulting in stomach cramps. Failure to eat would result in hypoglycemic symptoms (in spite of the fact that my blood sugars were well within the normal range when I was symptomatic)-headaches which sometimes became migraines, faintness, weakness, irritability, and nausea. I was told one solution to the intense hunger might be gastric bypass surgery. Desperate for a normal life, I had the gastric bypass. As soon as I was off of pain meds on my 10th day post-op, my extreme hunger returned with a vengeance, only due to the surgery, I could no longer eat large amounts. I would eat and eat and not get full. I was so depressed. 8 weeks post-op, I was eating about 10 cups of fruits/veggies a day and it was increasing all the time. Then I ran across an article that talked about insatiable hunger and how hunger could be normalized by “structured eating”. I began eating 4 times a day, no longer than 4 hours apart and no more than 3 1/2 cups of food at any given meal. No snacks. Within days, my hunger became more normalized. Within a month, my intense hunger and it’s accompanying disabling symptoms all but disappeared. I regained sensations of fullness and normal hunger. My surgeon and dietician were telling me I had “head hunger” not true hunger. I believe the symptoms were food addiction withdrawal symptoms. They were VERY different than emotional food cravings. They may have been “head hunger” but that is like telling someone their withdrawal symptoms from heroin are “head withdrawal”. Although I have not been through the Kerr’s program, I believe it will help other binge eaters who once engaged in restrictive dieting. I recovered. No therapy needed. Wish I had known before I went through with surgery.

  6. Ali Kerr on

    I’m so happy to hear that you have overcome this, thank you so much for sharing with us, your post will help others. Wishing you all the very best of luck, Ali & the HealED Team

  7. Ali Kerr on

    Hi Lynn, it’s difficult to answer this questions, I know Dr Michael does say in his book the 5/2 diet is not recommended for anyone who has an eating disorder. I believe it can escalate binge urges if you are not at a good place with recovery. However everyone is different and I know there are a lot of benefits from 5/2. Perhaps discuss this with your GP. Warmest regards, Ali 🙂

  8. Ali Kerr on

    Thank you for sharing Sarah, wishing you success with your recovery. Very warmest regards, Ali & HealED Team 🙂

  9. Ali Kerr on

    You are very welcome Alex, I hope this helps you, wishing you all the very best of luck, Ali & HealED Team

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