Do Fad Diets And Workouts Cause Eating Disorders?

group of smiling people working out with dumbbellsIt’s no secret that we live in a diet-obsessed, social-media influenced, quick-fix seeking culture these days. New diets and workouts seem to crop up every week, thinness and fitness are valued, and we are quick to compare pictures, goals, and results across social media platforms and in day to day conversation. According to the Healthy Weight Network, in the U.S., we spend more than 50 billion dollars a year on diet products!

You may have heard of things like the Cabbage Soup Diet, the Master Cleanse Lemonade Diet, the South Beach Diet, and the Paleo Diet. While the guidelines, approaches, and research behind each vary widely, they share a common goal and expectation of quick weight loss and improved health. The websites for a few of these tout the following enticing claims:

  • “…teaches you how to eliminate cravings, reprogram your body, and achieve incredible results”
  • “So long obesity, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer, and high risk for heart disease, hello curbed appetite, increased metabolism, high energy and strong cognitive function”
  • “If you have a special occasion coming up or you simply need to lose weight fast, (this diet) may be just what you need”

Similarly, in recent years, workout crazes like hot yoga, P90X, the bar method, and CrossFit have gained popularity and massive followings, often related to the group support and motivational aspects that help keep people engaged.

What do all of these diets and workouts have in common? They represent something new and different, advertise compelling success stories of weight loss and body transformation, and generally offer a prescribed and sometimes rigid approach to eating and/or exercise. Does that make them fundamentally bad for everyone? Of course not. Does it make them potentially dangerous and unhealthy for those already vulnerable to disordered eating? It certainly seems that way.

Using a biopsychosocial approach to understanding the cause of eating disorders, we know that, among other things, there are a number of emotional vulnerabilities for eating disorders. Those with low self-esteem, poor body image, anxiety, depression, difficulty in relationships, and those focused on societal attitudes about thinness and fitness all may be more susceptible to developing eating disorders than the general public. The College Student Mental Health Survey, for example, found that at least 75% of college students reported dissatisfaction with their weight, and an American College Health Association Survey of 95,000 students found that 44% of women and 27% of men were dieting to lose weight.

Often with fad diets and workouts, there are “rules” dictating “good foods vs bad foods,” strict routines, and a social component that may provide motivation but also could increase shame for those who don’t “succeed” or follow through. In many cases, proponents of a trend will connect compliance with the regimen to improved physical and emotional health, increased confidence and self-esteem, and improved body image. Such promises are both enticing and unrealistic, and failure to achieve these goals can lead to disappointment, and decreases in the areas of expected improvement.

Obviously not everyone who adopts a new workout routine or tries an extreme diet develops an eating disorder—and many people develop eating disorders in the absence of these trends.  However, it is important to make thoughtful decisions about lifestyle changes, to consider the vulnerabilities and risk factors, and to be mindful of warning signs that adherence to a program may be headed toward an eating disorder:

  • Dieting, exercise, weight loss, and focus on body image become obsessional or “addictive.”
  • Refraining from usual social or family activities to avoid normalized eating situations.
  • Significant distress around missing a workout or being in situations where it is inconvenient or impossible to adhere to the parameters of the diet plan.
  • Restriction of calories or food variety that causes extreme weight loss and/or other symptoms of malnutrition.
  • Increased anxiety, depression, or difficulty with self-esteem in the context of not reaching diet, exercise, or weight loss goals.

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About the author:

Emily Slager is the Director of EmilySlagerPartial Hospitalization and Intensive Outpatient Programs for adolescents and adults at Walden Behavioral Care’s Waltham location. In this role, she manages all aspects of these programs including administrative, fiscal and clinical management.  Formerly, she was a clinician on Walden’s inpatient eating disorder and psychiatric units.  Ms. Slager earned her master’s degree in counseling psychology from Boston College. Her professional interests include the development of eating disorders in athletes and in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.