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The Fine Line Between Fad Diets & Eating Disorders

From intermittent fasting to the keto diet to going paleo, we are constantly being presented with new (or in some cases, old-but-rebranded) diets. We’re all for healthy eating, but fad diets tend to have the goal of weight loss in a short period of time.

Not only that, but sometimes it can be difficult to pinpoint when specific eating plans start veering toward becoming eating disorders. To help clear things up, we thought it was important to open the conversation about fad diets and eating disorders and where the line is drawn between the two, including input from experts.

What is a fad diet? 

Put simply: You’ll probably know a fad diet when you see one.

“A fad diet is a temporary diet with the goal of losing weight and usually involves some of the more extreme measures, such as eliminating entire food groups, following a very restrictive diet and eating a very certain way,” Jennifer Sommer-Dirks, a registered dietitian and the nutrition manager of the Eating Recovery Center in Denver, tells SheKnows.

She adds that these quick-fix diets typically make “promises that seem too good to be true” or “overnight changes.” 

From intermittent fasting to the ketogenic diet, all fad diets seem to have one thing in common: restriction. 

“Whether it’s restricting quantity, restricting types of food, restricting the kinds of things you eat or telling you to eat in certain combinations, [these diets] always tend to involve some sort of restriction or limitation and establish some sort of rule that someone needs to follow,” Dr. Allison Chase, a certified eating disorder specialist and executive director of the Eating Recovery Center in Austin, tells SheKnows. “It completely disrupts your relationship with food.”

More: The Truth About 9 Popular Diet Trends

Potential risks of fad diets

Despite the sensationalized weight loss claims that are characteristic of fad diet advertisements, the nutrition plans they propose can actually be detrimental to your health. 

“Any time you eliminate a whole food group, you’re missing out on a lot of nutrients that your body needs, which can obviously cause health consequences,” Sommer-Dirks says. “When it comes to fasting, people will experience things like low blood sugar, feeling kind of woozy or even blacking out when they stand up quickly.”

Besides the threats to physical well-being, the level of restriction required by these diets can also interfere with one’s emotional well-being, leading to an eating disorder. This is especially true for people who are already struggling with their mental health and their relationship with food. 

Chase says that she has witnessed fad diets lead to anorexia, bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorders, especially in women who suffer from depression, anxiety and temperament issues or have a genetic predisposition to eating disorders.

“Having rules about eating can kind of trigger the diet mentality and reinforce the eating disorder,” Sommer-Dirks says. “You have to pay attention to calories or you have to be paying attention to when you’re eating or what you’re eating, and it just puts this huge focus on food that’s not really beneficial.” 

More: Yes, I Had an Eating Disorder — No, I Won’t Show You Before & After Photos

Sommer-Dirks also points out that starting a fad diet can be a way for someone to hide an eating disorder. 

Following a publicized program “can be a way for someone who is actually struggling with an eating disorder to legitimize it or to have it out in the open versus having to be secretive about it,” Sommer-Dirks adds. 

Eating disorder warning signs

That being said, our experts outlined a few eating disorder warning signs to watch out for if you or someone you know is on a fad diet:

Extreme physical changes

Chase suggests monitoring for health changes, such as a reduced heart rate, dizziness or tiredness, or feeling cold to the touch. Additionally, if you notice rapid weight loss, you might be restricting too severely. 

“Healthy weight loss is really only a pound or two a week,” Sommer-Dirks explains. “Anything beyond that is not considered healthy.”

Temperament changes 

Not feeling yourself? Abrupt changes in mood or the appearance of depressive symptoms could be a sign that your fad diet may be becoming dangerous.

“Are you finding that you aren’t getting pleasure from the things you used to because you’re so obsessed with your eating? In that case, you’re following a fad diet to strictly,” Chase says. 

She mentions that another red flag is when individuals begin to engage in binge-eating episodes or feel guilty after eating. 

Social life changes 

Chase also encourages people to ask themselves if the diet is interfering with their daily responsibilities and taking priority over their social life. 

“If you’re not able to go out to eat with friends or if you’re avoiding social occasions because you’re avoiding eating with others, that could be a big clue that something is wrong,” Sommer-Dirks notes. 

More: 3 Important Strategies for Supporting a Friend With an Eating Disorder

While these diets have always existed, social media hasn’t. The rise of platforms like Facebook and Instagram has allowed the creators of fad diets to infiltrate your social networks, placing extraordinary weight loss claims next to “before and after” pictures of strangers (or celebrity endorsements) without medical citations. 

Do your homework

Before starting a new diet, Chase suggests looking a bit into the fine print: what a particular diet is requiring you to do and whether it’s something you can adhere to and still remain physically and emotionally healthy.

If your answers to those questions indicate that this diet isn’t the right route to your goal of a healthier lifestyle, you may want to reconsider. It is important to speak with a doctor, nurse, nutritionist or dietitian to come up with an eating plan that works for you and that is safe and healthy.

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