The role of dieting in the development of eating difficulties

April 7, 2022

“I have so many voices pulling at me. One voice tells me to diet, another says diets are too restrictive. One voice tells me to fast and another one tells me to binge. I get very hungry listening to all these voices and then I have to eat. And I have to eat a lot, because it’s not just me I’m feeding, it’s all these other voices too.”

-Geneen Roth

The quote you’ve just read is an extract from one of my favourite books regarding the relationship between food & emotions: Feeding the hungry heart by Geneen Roth.

In the book, Geneen shares some very insightful stories and anecdotes of her own and her client’s life which shed light on the function food and being in a larger body play in our lives.

She’s great at showing how for some of us life ends up revolving completely around, food, diets, fast and binges.

You get an understanding on how the way you control (or not control at all) what you eat, is there for a reason. To make up for other things in your life where you feel you have very little control on. For example, family problems, rejection from others, the sense of insecurity in work or in college.

The first time this book ended up in my hands (around five years ago) I was literally shocked at the way it was really talking to me. It was like a journey in my own head.

I could see what purpose food was serving in my life and what it had been making up for.

It helped me see with more clarity how dieting and obsessing around food had not been hepful at all.

Funny enough this book was written in 1982. I was then 2 years old.

It’s impressive to see how little has changed since then, in the way, culturally speaking, ‘being thin’ and ‘wanting to fix one’s body’ is still on top of women’s priorities to this date.

If your mind is busy with these same conflicting messages right now, and you’re feeling exhausted as a result, today’s article will give you some good points to reflect on.

Contributors to binge-eating and other eating difficulties.

I used my blog quite a few times in the past to explain what might be causing you to have a difficult and stressful relationship with food.

You might have heard me before mentioning some common factors which contribute to eating difficulties, including binge eating.

Just to mention a few trauma, gender, and family dynamics along with character traits, such as perfectionism, no clear boundaries or low self-esteem.

Factors which contribute to binge eating problems

What really pulls the trigger is a diet.

If you’re interested in learning more about these, I wrote a few articles available in the blog. I recommend starting from this one for more details.

The point I want to make today is this.

You can have all those things going on in your life and that loads the gun. However, what really pulls the trigger and exposes you to risk of developing eating difficulties (or a full-blown eating disorder) is a diet.

And when I say diet, I mean any attempt to change the way you eat to change your body — read “to shrink it”.

Let’s pause for a moment here.

Read the last few sentences again and listen to what comes up in your mind.

Ask yourself: Have I ever considered dieting a problem?

After you’ve come up with your answer, keep reading.

I want to give you:

  • Three reasons why I consider diets problematic.
  • Some tips to help you identify whether you’re dieting without knowing you’re dieting, so you can start moving away from it.

Let’s dive in!

1. Dieting is culturally accepted as normal

One of the main reason dieting is problematic it’s because we don’t recognize it as problematic.

What do I mean by this?

Being on a diet has been normalised. It’s something most people do without any consideration that it could be triggering eating difficulties, disordered eating and eating disorders.

There’s now a lot of research showing that most people who restrict their food to lose weight, gain back the weight they’ve lost or even more than that. A great reading with loads of info about this point is Intuitive Eating by E. Tribole and E. Resch.

Something important is hardly mentioned when you are put on a diet. Something that could help you make a truly informed decision as to whether you want to go ahead or not with it. Diets interfere with your inner ability to connect with your body, to identify and respond to you hunger and fullness signals and really eat as you used to do when you were a child; in a more natural, intuitive way.

2. Dieting affects your self-esteem and your sense of worth

The way dieting messes things up here is by making you think there’s something wrong with you when it doesn’t work. When you fail to lose the weight or gain it back after an initial success.

So, you get in the loop of “Maybe this diet will do, or this other plan is better!…Maybe I should try fasting!”.

Sounds familiar?

At each and every failed attempt the self-esteem can be eroded a bit more.

Can you see how dieting can generate more problems instead of solving anything?

3. Dieting acts as a red herring

Going on a diet keeps you busy because it places the focus solely on the way you eat, on food.

At the same time it distracts you from what the real issue may be. It steers you away from what might be causing the struggle with food in the first place.

Those deeply rooted issues never get resolved while the focus keeps being on the food.

From this perspective, food is a great distraction. It keeps us focused on solving problems we don’t have, so we have no time and energy to solve the problems we really do have.

Those problems that are more complex and require a whole set of skills and strengths to be resolved.

You might have all kind of things going on in your life, for example, you’re in a career path you don’t like, or maybe the communication with your partner is problematic.

You know there is something wrong, and you think that what’s wrong with you is the way you eat and your body. Therefore, you know how to fix this: put some rules and restrictions on your food.

Plus, as we said before, it’s socially accepted to do so, and often you get praise for engaging in dieting, because for many it’s “a sign you really care about your health”.

In the meanwhile, the real issue never gets resolved because of this red herring, this distraction that is dieting.

What’s the bottom line here?

That focus on food and weight-loss is going to take you away from recovery and healing instead of moving you towards it.

So, where do you go from here?

  • If you’re actively pursuing weight loss through a diet, I hope what I shared so far gives you some food for thought on the harmful effect this might cause. This applies especially if you have a history of eating distress or were previously diagnosed with disordered eating or an eating disorder. I encourage you to keep reading anyway.
  • If instead, you are not officially on a diet, I want to give you some elements to understand if there’s a chance you might be following some kind of plan that claims “Healthy Lifestyle” on the label when it’s actually a diet.
  • Even if you’re not currently changing anything in your lifestyle, you might want to read ahead to see if after previous dieting experiences, you still “think dieting”.

I am conscious that this articleis already quite lengthy so for the purpose of keeping it shorter, I have condensed this information into a blog article with the title: How to spot a diet in disguise (click to read it).

There’s much I could say about how moving away from dieting and from wanting to change our body can help us get focused on what really needs our attention right now. And I’ll be covering this in more detail in future articles.

For now I hope this gives you enough to reconsider the role diets and weight-loss has played so far in keeping the eating struggle going.

If so, do comment below and let me know!

With kindness,

Dona 🌷


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Written by Donatella Porceddu

I am a registered psychologist and life coach specialised in binge and emotional eating, body kindness, and mindful eating. I empower women to become the best version of themselves through my comprehensive approach, which combines personal coaching and psychology, leveraging my client’s strengths and building around their opportunities.

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If you have any questions, reach out to me today. I’ll be more than happy to connect with you and see how I can help.

Donatella Porceddu Psychologist & Eating Coach specialised in Binge Eating, Overeating, Emotional Eating, Food freedom, anti-diet approach. 1:1 support through my Make Peace with Food program.

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