Home Health Dieting and Eating Disorders—What’s the Connection?| Well+Good

Dieting and Eating Disorders—What’s the Connection?| Well+Good

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Dieting and Eating Disorders—What’s the Connection?| Well+Good

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Raise your hand if you’ve ever dieted or tried losing weight. Okay, I know we can’t see each other, but I bet that most hands would have gone up if we were in a room full of people. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), from 2013 to 2016 (the most recent data available), about half of U.S. adults reported trying to lose weight in the last 12 months when surveyed. Women were more likely than men to have tried losing weight, with about 56 percent of women and 42 percent of men attempting weight loss.

All that to say, dieting and intentional weight loss attempts are super common. Although the word “diet” has become a little icky in recent years, weight loss diets still abound, just under other names. If the program prescribes food restrictions or rigid food rules, it’s probably a diet.

Many people start a diet with the hopes of improving their health—mental or physical—without realizing there’s the potential for real harm from dieting. One of the most concerning aspects of this is that dieting may increase the risk of developing an eating disorder. In this article, we’ll go over what eating disorders are, how dieting and eating disorders are related, and some ideas for how to stop dieting.

What is an eating disorder?

Eating disorders are serious mental health disorders characterized by severe disordered eating behaviors and emotional distress. The disordered eating behaviors are often a means of coping with difficult emotions. With most eating disorders, there’s also an overvaluation of weight and shape. The four main eating disorders, per the National Institute of Mental Health, are:

  • Anorexia nervosa. This eating disorder comes with extreme restrictions around the quantity and/or types of food someone eats. There’s also often an intense fear of gaining weight and a distorted perception of one’s body size.
  • Bulimia nervosa. Bulimia nervosa is characterized by periods of binge eating followed by periods of some sort of compensation, whether it be vomiting, laxative abuse, excessive exercise, and/or fasting.
  • Binge eating disorder. Binge eating disorder is when someone has repeated episodes of eating an unusually large amount of food in a way that feels out of their control. Unlike bulimia nervosa, there are no compensatory behaviors. This is the most common eating disorder in the U.S.
  • Avoidant-restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID). ARFID is the one eating disorder on this list that doesn’t come with body image disturbances and likely isn’t linked as much to dieting. It includes food restriction, but it’s not rooted in a fear of weight gain. Instead, it’s related to an extreme disinterest in food, a prior trauma related to food (like food poisoning or a choking incident), or sensory sensitivities.

Now that we’ve defined what eating disorders are, let’s explore how dieting and eating disorders are related. As we mentioned above, dieting is related to most eating disorders except ARFID, since ARFID isn’t rooted in body image disturbances or weight loss attempts.

Dieting fosters an unhealthy relationship with food

As you can see, eating disorders are rooted in poor relationships with food. (Although let’s be clear, they’re not lifestyle choices; they’re serious mental health illnesses.) They come with extreme food restriction, binge eating, feeling out of control around food, purging, or a combination of all of the above.

Dieting fosters an unhealthy relationship with food that could set the stage for an eating disorder. Most diets entail diligently tracking your food intake and following strict food rules, whether that be around your macro intake, calorie intake, or timing of meals. They often also entail eliminating certain foods or entire food groups. Plus, there’s usually some kind of labeling of foods—explicitly or subtly—as “good” and “bad” or “healthy” and “unhealthy.”

A study in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology found that denying the potential risks of fasting increases your risk of developing bulimia nervosa. So, don’t underestimate the harms of restrictive eating behaviors; they can cause real issues.

Plus, all the restriction that comes with dieting increases the likelihood of binge eating. It’s something called the binge-restrict cycle; when you don’t eat enough, your body’s more likely to compensate by getting in all the food it can when it’s available. A classic example is sticking to a diet on weekdays and having planned “cheat days” on the weekend. This is also often linked with tough emotions; the guilt over binge eating prompts renewed restriction and so on.

Especially for those who are predisposed to an eating disorder, all these aspects of dieting could trigger very disordered eating behaviors that end up in an eating disorder.

Dieting is linked with body dissatisfaction

Most diets are rooted in weight loss. They promise to help you shed x number of pounds so you can be happy, healthy, and confident, which implies that your body is not enough as it is. In fact, intentional weight loss attempts are often linked with body dissatisfaction, per a 2022 study in Nutrients. Dieting perpetuates the idea that we should be constantly trying to shrink our bodies.

Diets also foster an obsession with body weight and shape. They perpetuate the idea that one type of body is superior to another. They often entail monitoring your weight or taking before and after pictures to see your body change as you progress through the diet. Similar body-checking behaviors are seen in eating disorders, especially anorexia nervosa.

Plus, the study we mentioned above from the Journal of Abnormal Psychology found that internalization of the thin ideal, body dissatisfaction, and dieting were all predictors for the onset of bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder.

How to quit dieting

Since dieting can cause mild disordered eating at best or increase the risk for an eating disorder at worst, you may be wondering how to stop dieting. Depending on how long you’ve been at it, it may feel overwhelming to stop trying to control your food intake and shrink your body. Yet, it can be oh-so worth it.

Here are some tips for ditching diets and improving your relationship with food:

Tip 1: Reflect on your values and desires

Considering what prompted you to diet in the first place gives you room to have your needs met in another way. For example, if you want to increase your confidence, maybe you can work on accepting your body as it is and focusing on all of your amazing personality traits.

Tip 2: Embrace an “all foods fit” mentality

Diets encourage a restrictive mentality around food, but an all-foods-fit approach is key to improving your relationship with what and how you eat. Embrace the value of all foods and know that food is more than its nutritional composition. Try to consider what food would be satisfying to eat rather than what’s lowest in calories or carbs. This can be easier said than done, which brings us to the next tip.

Tip 3: Work with a non-diet, weight-inclusive dietitian and therapist

These types of providers are trained to help you heal your relationship with food and your body. They can support you in your journey away from dieting and toward a positive relationship with food.

Final thoughts

Although dieting is common, it can wreak havoc on your relationship with food and your body. As a result, it’s one of the biggest risk factors for developing an eating disorder. So, if you’re stuck in a cycle of dieting, it may be time to ditch diets and embrace a healthier relationship with food. Working with a therapist or registered dietitian can be a great way to explore your relationship with food, understand your needs, and work toward breaking up with diets for good.


Well+Good articles reference scientific, reliable, recent, robust studies to back up the information we share. You can trust us along your wellness journey.

  1. Stice, Eric et al. “Risk factors that predict future onset of each DSM-5 eating disorder: Predictive specificity in high-risk adolescent females.” Journal of abnormal psychology vol. 126,1 (2017): 38-51. doi:10.1037/abn0000219
  2. Eck, Kaitlyn M et al. “Body Dissatisfaction, Eating Styles, Weight-Related Behaviors, and Health among Young Women in the United States.” Nutrients vol. 14,18 3876. 19 Sep. 2022, doi:10.3390/nu14183876
  3. Stice, Eric et al. “Risk factors that predict future onset of each DSM-5 eating disorder: Predictive specificity in high-risk adolescent females.” Journal of abnormal psychology vol. 126,1 (2017): 38-51. doi:10.1037/abn0000219


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Harmony Evans is an award-winning author of Harlequin Kimani Romance, African-American romance, and so on. Harmony Evans is an award-winning author for Harlequin Kimani Romance, the leading publisher of African-American romance. Her 2nd novel, STEALING KISSES, will be released in November 2013. Harmony is a single mom to a beautiful, too-smart-for-her-own-good daughter, who makes her grateful for life daily. Her hobbies include cooking, baking, knitting, reading, and of course, napping and also review some of the best-selling and popular brands and services in the market and also write comprehensive blogs.

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