Are Dieting Behaviors And Disordered Eating Behaviors Really So Different?

In November of 1998, during my senior year in college, I embarked on a new diet. I called it “low carb with fruit.” I cut out a lot of foods, and like most diets, it started working in the beginning. Because I was losing weight, I stuck with the diet very carefully.

In early January 1999, I went on a trip to Prague with my scholarship group from school. It was extremely cold in Prague, and I didn’t have much money. There was hardly any fruit or vegetables to be had anywhere, so for about a week I subsisted on about 2 sausages that you buy on the street per day, carefully throwing out the hearty roll it was wrapped in. I was also walking for miles each day, exploring the city.

I'm bummed that I can't find my pictures from that trip. But here's Prague Castle (image courtesy of wikipedia).

As you might imagine, I was hungry for most of the day, and I ignored that hunger for both convenience sake and because I wanted to stick to this diet. Only someone on a diet or a severe wheat allergy would have thrown those rolls away. And maybe there were some other foods I could have found on the cheap, but I was so single-minded about sticking to my diet that I probably didn’t consider them.

When I got back to New York, I had lost more weight, and everyone was excited for me. My hair was also thinner, and I’m not sure it ever really recovered.

I remember, at the time, feeling happy to have lost more weight, but sad that no one seemed to mind that I did it in a really unhealthy way. I thought, if I had gone to Prague a size 2 and come back a size 0, they might have considered getting me some help for an eating disorder, but leaving a size 14/16 and coming back a 12/14 was considered a great accomplishment.

A lot of my clients come to me with self-diagnosed restrictive eating disorders. And they come to me that way because when you’re fat or plus-sized or even toward the larger end of the “normal size” scale, weight loss is considered a healthy, important goal, and almost any way that you arrive at or strive for that goal is approved of. Many of the symptoms of dieting (obsession with weight, obsession with food, body dysmorphia) are akin to eating disorder symptoms, but they’re overlooked if you’re engaging in them while existing in a fatter body. They still have deleterious mental, emotional, and physical effects, whether you’re fat, thin, or in between. I think it’s time that the health and wellness community and the world at large recognized this reality.

This lack of recognition for eating disorders in fatter people is something I think about quite a lot, but it was brought to the fore by the fact that the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) has decided to partner with Strategies To Overcome and Prevent (STOP) Obesity Alliance, a group who’s funded by pharmaceutical companies that produce dangerous and questionable things like diet pills and lap bands. (To read more about it, read Ragen Chastain’s excellent open letter to NEDA and sign the petition to stop this alliance.)

Is engaging in restricting and obsessive behaviors perfectly great if you’re fatter and yet something worthy of treatment when you’re thinner? Or are our societal norms and unfounded beliefs about health and beauty clouding the fact that it’s pretty much the same thing? Let me know what you think in the comments below.

Golda is a certified holistic health counselor and founder of Body Love Wellness, a program designed for plus-sized women who are fed up with dieting and want support to stop obsessing about food and weight. Join her for her upcoming FREE teleclass, HAES For The Holidays: How To Navigate Food, Family & Fatness Better This Holiday Season, by clicking here.

7 replies on “Are Dieting Behaviors And Disordered Eating Behaviors Really So Different?”

I appreciate you bringing up the lack of attention paid to eating disorders among fatter people, because that’s right on and it’s something I hadn’t thought about a lot before. I do think, though, that diets and eating disorders are really different – based on my own experiences, the main difference is control. To me, with an eating disorder, you (or, I, because I’m talking about me here) think you’re in control until one day you realize that you’re not and it’s controlling you – you’re not choosing to eat fewer sweets or to cut back on carbs, you can’t bring yourself to eat those things and they terrify you.

That’s not to say that a diet cannot turn into disordered behavior (as it sounds like was your experience in Prague) or a full-blown eating disorder, because I’ve seen that happen, but I’ve also seen plenty of people change their diets in ways they could maintain and that were healthy for them for a variety of reasons (a friend who stopped working out and started drinking more during grad school and then made some diet and exercise changes after we graduated comes to mind).

I think this article makes one dangerous mistake: you assume that all dieting behavior is extreme and unhealthy. You make this assumption based on personal and anecdotal specifics, and broaden them to generalities. I know people who’ve had the specific experiences you’ve had, and it’s heartbreaking, and I certainly don’t want to downplay that experience: I wholeheartedly concur that extreme weight loss tactics like the ones you describe are unhealthy and are benchmarks of eating disorders, just as I concur that the field of treatment for disordered eating is unfairly biased against people who are not grotesquely thin (or, you know, people who “don’t look like they have an eating disorder”). But I also know plenty of people who have dieted without starving themselves or “obsessing” or hurting themselves or even making themselves sad, and it’s absurd to suggest that everyone who restricts aspects of their eating is doing so in the extreme, or to their own health’s detriment.

Just as it’s absurd to suggest (as in a previous comment on this article) that only the people who focus on food professionally should be considered healthy in doing so. Every person who has cooking as a hobby, who engages in food photography, or who just really fucking loves to eat and savor food gets branded “unhealthy” by that designation, as does every person who says to herself, “Chocolate cake sounds awesome for lunch, but since I’ve done that every day for the last week and I am starting to feel lower energy and gassy in the afternoons, I think I’ll get the minestrone instead.” And god help her if she thinks this because her pants are getting tight and she wants them to fit again. Cause, that’s “dieting” behavior where I come from. It’s not extreme. It’s not unhealthy. It’s just listening to your body’s cues and making small adjustments to accomodate them. How is that equivalent to disordered eating?

Wow. This article speaks to me so much. I went through a brief period of major depression during which I was also restricting my eating pretty seriously. I lost 20 lbs in about 2 months, and even though it was so clearly tied to my depression (which was so bad that I had to drop out of school) no one thought to do anything but compliment me on my weight loss. Even my parents, to whom it should have been pretty clear that I was not in a good place. Now that I am at a weight much higher than I ever was before the depression, but am happy, well-adjusted and succeeding in life, all they can think of is how I used to be thin, and can’t I just do it again? They have no idea that being thin was the darkest place I’ve ever been and, while I’d like to be healthier, I would much rather be fat and not suicidal.

I think about food A LOT. I will spend hours finding a recipe that i think is suitable, and I can similarly spend hours reading about food and their nutritional content and mineral composition, and how to cook a specific ingredient etc. Am I perverse in saying that I find pleasure in that? Bizarrely enough, I find thinking about food and planning meals relaxing, and I feel good when I stick to my healthy plans and eat things that are nutritious. Yes, one could argue that all this thinking about food can be a bit obsessive at times, but at the same time, is it a negative thing if it gives me pleasure and rarely causes me stress? While I usually prefer a nice salad over a slice of pizza, if I’m craving oreos, I’m damn well having some!

While I’ve never been on a diet in my life (I can’t deal with the idea of having someone impose food goals on me), I’m sure that by some definition, you could call my food obsession “disordered”. And I think that may be part of the problem. IS there a good definition for “disordered eating”? what is “normal” eating? – What, in today’s society where people are so accustomed to eating on the go and grabbing pre-prepared foodstuffs, is “normal” eating? Surely people from the 1900’s would feel at least somewhat uncomfortable when faced with the food culture of today…

While there’s clearly something wrong with a person who is too far on either end of the weight spectrum, I agree with the author that maybe as a society, we should start treating body appearance and food habits as separate issues. yes, losing (or gaining) weight can be accomplished without any horridly regimented eating excercises, just as some people (bulimics come to mind) can have horridly disordered eating patterns and still look “amazing”.

eh, sorry for the long comment that ultimately didn’t contain very much.

I think dieting is disordered if your whole day is consumed by thoughts of food, regardless of whether or not your eating habits are healthy (I wouldn’t say that every college student who lives on Ramen is disordered just because they’re not being healthy).  I would also say that people who aren’t chefs, nutritionists, or frequent food writers who think too much about eating healthfully aren’t healthy either.  Food, even enjoyable food, is something that allows you to live your life.  It shouldn’t be the center of your life.

I have wondered this exact same thing, and I had a really similar experience. I had gained weight my senior year of college, so when I lost weight while abroad the following year (from not really being able to afford to eat much, and also from exercising more than necessary, both sort of non-healthy things) people were SO EXCITED. “You look so great!” and I was like, “I have been REALLY FUCKING HUNGRY for a YEAR.” But since I looked “better” (whatever that means) it wasn’t a problem, just a perk of temporary poverty. Which is a problem!

When I try to diet, I feel really preoccupied and unhealthily focused on my body in a way that I think is not healthy for me, even if monitoring my food is good for me (or good for one, or whatever). I have a hard time doing it in a non-punishing way, and I have a hard time diverting that much of my mental energy in that direction without suffering in other areas. So yeah. I know I’m fairly sure there are ways to be healthy while relearning eating and exercise strategies, but it’s a lot of work and I haven’t fully managed them, I guess.

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