For many people, dieting and weight loss lead to something more dangerous

Editor’s Note: This article contains mentions of eating disorders and disordered eating. Please take care while reading, and note the helpful resources at the end of this story.

With the way society touts “revolutionary” workout regimens and diet plans at every turn, many people have been conditioned to believe that the skinnier they are, the happier they’ll be. This weight loss monomania has infiltrated every facet of everyday life, and the demographic most affected by it — teenagers — is easily persuaded by targeted Instagram ads and empty promises from fitness influencers.

All of these fad diets and supposedly healthy weight loss programs have made it virtually impossible to embark on a weight loss journey without losing yourself in the process. In today’s world, a so-called “normal diet” is more like a gateway drug: According to a meta-analysis published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, 35 percent of normal dieters become pathological dieters, and up to 25 percent end up developing eating disorders.

“The hard truth is that eating disorders almost always start out as diets,” registered dietitian and nutritionist Lexy Penney, owner of Lexy Penney Nutrition & Wellness, explained to In The Know. “What starts as a seemingly harmless diet or 30-day weight loss challenge more often than not (in my experience) ends in an unhealthy relationship with food and the body.”

Even if you start your weight loss journey with the best intentions, it’s hard not to end up in a toxic relationship with food and your body once a restrictive mindset takes hold. There is a very fine line between a healthful diet and a restrictive one — and if you’re not careful, the former can turn into the latter.

Take it from someone who’s been there. Jordan Murphy, aka Jordan Shrinks, lost 130 pounds in 2016. She’s unabashedly candid with her 377,000 YouTube subscribers and 322,000 Instagram followers about her weight loss journey — not just about what it takes to lose 100+ pounds, but also about the messy reality of the process.

“Although my weight loss started with really good intentions, which were for my health, when you start losing weight and you start seeing the aesthetic or the physical changes of losing weight, for me at least, I kind of started to lose how important the health aspect was for me and it just kind of turned into really negative body image,” Murphy told In The Know. Eventually, her weight loss journey turned into an issue with binge eating — one that she didn’t previously struggled with.

At her heaviest, Murphy weighed a little over 300 pounds. She struggled with food addiction and overconsumption for much of her life, and instead of slowly transitioning to a healthier diet and lifestyle, she “drastically changed overnight,” which her body (and psyche) couldn’t handle.

“When I was losing weight, the toxic mentality really started to come in and that led to restrictive eating … and I think that is the reason why I ended up struggling with binge eating,” Murphy explained. “I really do think it stemmed from the fact that … I drastically changed overnight into a dieting lifestyle and I just think it was too much for my body.”

Daniella S.* also developed an unhealthy relationship with food after losing weight. The 27-year-old unintentionally lost around 25 pounds in college, and grappled with disordered eating for years afterward due to a newly developed fear of “going back to being in a larger body.”

*Last name has been omitted to protect source’s identity

“After I lost the weight, I became much more aware of how people perceived me. I thought that since everyone noticed that I lost the weight, they will notice even more when I start to gain it back,” Danielle explained to In The Know. “That fear of gaining back the weight I lost took over and I went into clean eating and exercise overdrive. I would eat so little during the day, which led to binge eating at night.”

When speaking about their disordered eating post-weight loss, both Jordan and Daniella mentioned a deep-rooted fear of gaining back the weight they’d lost. According to therapist Rebecca Solodovnik of NYC Counseling, this is all too common: The more a person’s weight loss is positively reinforced by friends and family, the more insecure they become about the possibility of gaining weight back.

“When people lose weight, they are complimented. The weight loss is positively reinforced and that makes them feel good about themselves,” Solodovnik explained. “The message they are receiving is ‘me with the weight loss is good’ and ‘me with the weight gain is bad.’ They begin to feel shame if they gain weight as they associate the weight gain with not being their best self.”

For many people, these fears of regaining lost weight are only compounded by body dysmorphia. Individuals who have lost a significant amount of weight often hide their bodies behind baggy clothes and compulsively check their bodies in the mirror because they cannot accept that they are smaller. This is such a common phenomenon in the weight loss community, in fact, that there’s a specific term for it: phantom fat syndrome.

“Weight can be factually seen by stepping on the scale, but self-image is more abstract than just a number,” registered dietitian nutritionist Rachel Naar, founder of Rachel Naar Nutrition, told In The Know. “Body dysmorphia comes from the beliefs, experiences, culture and behavior we have encountered in our lives. If someone’s behavior, etc. hasn’t changed since losing weight, someone might feel the same way they did when they were heavier.”

How to take control of your health in a nourishing way

Not everyone who loses weight ends up with an enervating eating disorder and a strained relationship with their body. However, if you want to improve your health, then the way you approach that will likely determine your long-term relationship with food and your body.

The most important thing you can do — for your body, your mind and your mental health — is abandon the idea of “diets” altogether. Anything that outwardly restricts your caloric intake and limits what you can and can’t eat is a catalyst for disordered eating, which is why many nutritionists advise against it.

“Being too rigid … creates a formula to fail,” Solodovnik explained. “When a person ‘cheats’ or eats ‘bad’ food, they feel like a failure. Feeling like a failure can lead to anxiety, depression, avoidance of friends/family/social settings, bingeing (i.e. eating more ‘bad foods’), corrective behavior like restricting or starving, purging foods, over-exercising and being overly self-critical.”

Right now, you’re probably asking yourself: If I can’t track my calories or go on a diet, how can I take control of my health? Instead of setting weight loss goals, consider all of the other reasons you want to change your habits, and focus on those as you embark on your journey.

This is easier said than done — we get it. Thankfully, there is an approach to eating and health known as intuitive eating that can help you see food as nourishment rather than as the enemy.

Intuitive eating is an “evidence-based approach that focuses on healthful behavior changes and body acceptance, versus weight loss as a means for better health,” registered dietitian Cara Harbstreet, owner of Smart Street Nutrition, explained to In The Know. “This can help you heal your relationship with food, exercise/movement, and body image, as well as develop tools for self-care and maintaining healthy boundaries in your relationships and community that support overall well-being.”

As you begin to work on your relationship with food and body image, it’s also important to limit what comes up in your social media feeds as much as you can. A study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found a strong link between disordered eating, self-esteem and social media use, one that pretty much anyone with an Instagram account can attest to.

“When I first started losing weight, I compared myself to people who I should not have been comparing myself to — people who have never been overweight, people who had the body I want despite never looking like I did,” Murphy said. “That really got me into a lot of trouble with my mental health: thinking that once I lost weight, I was gonna look like Instagram fit chicks. I just had unrealistic expectations. […] I kind of really had to tell myself, like, Instagram is an illusion.”

Most importantly, make sure to incorporate self-love and positive self-talk into your day-to-day routine. As many people learn the hard way, no amount of weight loss can change how you feel about your body. Though diet companies want you to believe otherwise, a person’s weight and body size has nothing to do with their body image — that all stems from within.

“There are people at all sizes of the body spectrum who have poor, good or even great body image,” Penney said. “The individuals I work with are able to improve their body image without changing their actual bodies. We change minds about bodies rather than the bodies themselves through improving self-esteem, self-care, body respect and working towards accepting that bodies naturally come in all shapes and sizes.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder or disordered eating habits, contact the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) at 1-800-931-2237. You can also connect with a Crisis Text Line counselor at no charge by texting the word “HOME” to 741741. Visit the NEDA website to learn more about the possible warning signs of eating disorders and disordered eating.

If you liked this post, check out our other content around body acceptance.

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