The line between dieting and eating disorders

February 19, 2020

Although struggling with an eating disorder may seem far-fetched for some, the idea of going on a diet is sure to be quite familiar. As a commonly accepted tool for losing weight, diets can be found throughout society.

Recently, however, studies by the American Journal of Psychiatry indicate that many chronic dieters exhibit similar behavior patterns to those with diagnosed eating disorders. 

Wendy Sterling agrees that the diet culture established in our society has created disordered eating in many people. Sterling, owner of Sterling Nutrition Clinic and certified eating disorder specialist, is well-versed in the topic. 

“Dieting is the number one risk factor in the development of an eating disorder. Obsessing about food and fear of weight gain is found in most people who are dieting. They might not have clinical eating disorders, but chronic dieters usually have a very poor relationship with food and their bodies,” Sterling said.

As Sterling puts it, this attempt to be healthier through dieting can often lead to something much more sinister. 

For Carlmont sophomore Nanami Oiwa, dieting is something she experiments with to feel confident both mentally and physically.

This summer, she is taking it a step further than ever before by eliminating all the carbs from her diet. 

“As long as it is making me happy, I do not have anything against dieting,” Oiwa said.

Oiwa is not alone in her ventures to try different eating plans. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, one-half of teenage girls and one-quarter of teenage boys have tried dieting to change the shape of their bodies.

The problem with uniformed dieting is that it can often blur the line between a structured meal plan and a disordered eating pattern. Without being properly educated, many dieting teenagers are prone to be caught up in the common food misconceptions that characterize the diets marketed by media and online “health gurus.”

These food myths can be easily observed, even with a simple scroll through Instagram. 

While looking through a “healthy living” Instagram account, one quickly finds repetitive themes. For example, the idea that “all carbohydrates are bad” is a regular message. 

Sterling acknowledges that the lack of sufficient knowledge surrounding proper nutrition is a substantial problem. The circulation of food myths and unreasonable dieting advice on social media contributes to the situation.

“I often see that people who diet think in terms of extremes, and this can be a red flag that something more serious is going on. The person may also be cutting out other areas of their diet, or may have become overly preoccupied about food and weight,” Sterling said.

Bryan Lian, the clinical director for Nutrition Support Clinic, shares the same views as Sterling. 

One common question he has heard from clients is about what foods they need to cut out or avoid.

“Many people try to regain a sense of control by doubling down on what is a ‘good’ food and what is a ‘bad’ food. Rather than drawing a hard line on what you are allowed to eat, use balance, variety, and curiosity to plan your meals,” Lian said.

Both Sterling and Lian recognize that the abundance of nutrition information may seem overwhelming, but agree that the basic principles of leading a healthy life are simple. 

While it may seem difficult to stay well-informed about what is “healthy” and what is “unhealthy,” the main takeaway is that food is there to provide energy and should never consume daily life. 

Whether one lives under the shadow of an eating disorder, suffers from disordered eating habits, or is confused about proper nutrition, there is always a path forward. 

“Life should be about friends and family, about reaching your goals and making memories. Food is there to fuel your success and should never get in the way of achieving your dreams,” Sterling said.

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