I don’t diet. I’ve never been on a diet.
I used to say this to my dietitian in early eating disorder recovery. She explained to me that while I had never subscribed to a formal diet like Paleo, I had dieted—and a lot. After all, that’s what had landed me in treatment for anorexia nervosa.
When I look back honestly, I can see that for many years of my life, I restricted myself to eating small amounts of certain types of food due to concerns about my weight. Obviously, that’s one form of dieting.
We all know by now that diets don’t work. You have probably heard the statistic that 95 to 98 percent of diets fail. People who go on diets usually end up gaining any weight lost and often adding on more pounds. Yet the dieting industry wants to hold onto their multi-billion dollar industry, so these days, dieting is cleverly repackaged as “lifestyle changes.”
While some lifestyle changes are actually healthy, others are just plain dieting in disguise. Trying to eat more vegetables, fruits, and whole grains is based on good science, but popular diets that encourage extreme behaviors are nothing more than pseudoscience. Eating more raw vegetables is a lifestyle change; eating only raw vegetables is likely to be an eating disorder.
Here are some ways that diets can hide in our society:
While food allergies can be very real, in some cases they are just a mask for dieting. Studies suggest that approximately 6 percent of children and 1 to 2 percent of adults have bona fide food allergies and must therefore abstain from a specific food like soy, eggs, milk, shellfish, or peanuts. Important to note, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease explicitly discourages food allergy self-diagnosis since people tend to be wrong in 50 to 90 percent of cases.
Celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that affects less than 1 percent of American adults, requires that sufferers follow a gluten-free diet and abstain from many types of foods, including wheat, bread, and pasta. In spite of the growing trend to eat gluten-free, a recent nationally representative study found that 96 percent of American adults who reported following a gluten-free diet tested negative for celiac disease. The question becomes why are all of these individuals eliminating gluten? For some, there are good, medically-based reasons. But, for others, going gluten-free can be a smoke screen to diet.
Vegetarianism and Veganism
If you are considering becoming vegetarian or vegan, again, it’s important to be honest with yourself about why you want to limit your diet. Good reasons might be tied to long-standing cultural and religious beliefs or concerns for animal rights. But other reasons can be tied to dieting. In one study, 42 percent of vegetarian women who had previously been treated for an eating disorder identified weight management as their primary motivation for avoiding meat, compared to 0 percent of those with no eating disorder history.
Sugar and Flour Addiction
A new generation of research on the possibility of food addiction has identified that anticipation of eating highly palatable food activates areas of the brain similar to those activated by drugs and alcohol. But there is no evidence that eliminating specific foods (such as flour or sugar) from your diet is an effective way to prevent binge eating. There is actually much more evidence that trying to avoid these foods will make you even more likely to binge. Have you ever banned yourself from eating a slice of cake while dining in a restaurant with friends only to find yourself eating an entire cake alone at home?
Although eating only unprocessed foods such as fruits and nuts might sounds healthy, research shows it may cause more harm than good. As one example, in a large study of German adults who had consumed at least 70 percent of their diet as raw foods for at least two years, 38 percent were deficient in vitamin B12, which can cause a variety of physical and mental health problems like fatigue, depression, and memory problems. So, going raw might just make you forget how bad you truly feel.
The point is: dieting can sneak into our lives masked as healthy living. Why does any of this even matter?
Dieting can be the “gateway drug” to an eating disorder. In fact, an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating is commonly referred to as orthorexia nervosa. Individuals who struggle with orthorexia are often more preoccupied with food quality versus food quantity (like I was with anorexia). Similar to the entire spectrum of eating disorders, orthorexia can lead to nutritional deficiencies, social isolation, and can be life-threatening.
For those of us who have already entered into recovery from an eating disorder, dieting can prevent us from reaching and maintaining a full recovery. Don’t miss the chance to find complete freedom from your eating disorder just because of some popular diet disguised as healthy living.
This can get really confusing, because even doctors might prescribe unhealthy dietary behaviors to us.
Several years ago, after I had fully recovered from my eating disorder, my doctor encouraged me to eat dairy-free due to my family’s history of high cholesterol. Um, no thank you. This doctor failed to take into consideration that I had spent years of hard work in recovery specifically giving myself permission to eat cheese. Yes, high cholesterol can be a real problem, and I have addressed it—but not by eliminating pizza.
If we learn to listen to our bodies instead of the latest eating fad, we will eat raw veggies and pizza in balance and will be properly nourished. Yet, if we add up all of the food rules out there, we won’t be allowed to eat anything at all!
Don’t let the dieting industry put you on the path to an eating disorder, nor prevent you from reaching a full recovery. If you don’t have an eating disorder, don’t miss out on a full life. Food is fuel for living; it doesn’t have to cause so much distress in our lives.
If you want to eliminate something, kick dieting to the curb. I can promise that you won’t miss that.
This post is one in a series of Eating Recovery Center’s second annual Eating Recovery Roundup in celebration of our upcoming Eating Recovery Day on May 2! To read all of our posts this year’s theme of #DontMissIt, follow us on Twitter at @eatingrecovery and @jennischaefer. Or visit ERC and me on Facebook.