The Urge To Diet After an Eating Disorder

You have spent a significant amount of time and energy healing from an eating disorder. You have been learning how to cope with emotions, taking care of yourself, and using your voice to speak up when you need to. You have been able to build a bigger life than you had imagined and connected with people in meaningful ways and then it hits you: the urge to go on a diet. You are not alone. We are going to explore where this urge comes from, what it means, and what to do about this common experience.

Diet Culture

It is difficult to live in a culture that sets unrealistic beauty standards and places a high value on appearance, body size, and weight. It is even more challenging when you have struggled with an eating disorder. We are constantly consuming messages telling us what to look like, who gets treated better, and what products to buy to achieve this. These messages are brought into regular everyday conversations with family, friends, and strangers in the elevator. It is nearly impossible to go a full day without hearing about the latest diet or someone’s desire to change their body. It’s understandable why someone would want to conform when a culture celebrates weight loss, rewards those whose bodies fit the cultural beauty ideals, or know you could be seen as healthy, successful, or smart just based on your body size.

To sum up diet culture, it is a belief set that places value on thin bodies, encourages the active pursuit of weight loss at any cost, equates smaller bodies with better health, and promotes the idea of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods which can be internalized as being a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ person. It is a culture that perpetuates weight stigma, weight discrimination, and fatphobia which can negatively affect everyone. People in bigger bodies may feel like they must change their weight and people in smaller bodies fear gaining weight. This comes at a major cost. The pursuit of thinness often takes away time, energy, money, brain space, joy, self-esteem, connection, and overall well-being while pulling the individual away from what matters more to them. People can become so fixated on food and weight, they lose sight of their values.

It is tough to recover in an environment where you feel like you’re swimming against the current. Sometimes being immersed in diet information causes it to sound appealing and we begin to believe this could be good for our health. Check-in with your own history of dieting to see if this was healthy for you and for how long. This can also be a sign to turn inward to see what really needs your attention – and it is probably not about food or weight.

ATTENTION: Your ‘Check Engine’ Light is on

  • The good news: When someone has recovered from an eating disorder and they suddenly begin to fixate on their body or question their food choices, this can be a sign that something deeper is going on that needs to be addressed.
  • The not so good news: It can be difficult to examine the deeper issue and figure out what the individual really needs.

Carolyn Costin, author of “8 Keys To Recovery From An Eating Disorder”, compares this urge to diet to the ‘check engine’ light on the car dashboard lighting up to alert the individual to stop, pop open the hood, and investigate what the real issue is. Are there other areas of your life where you are feeling out of control or uncertain about? Are you going through a difficult time and need to ask for help, set more boundaries, or connect with others? Are you feeling sad, angry, lonely, insecure, or experiencing grief? What are other ways you can address these needs?

Although dieting can temporarily numb emotions or be a distraction from challenging experiences, it does not solve the underlying issues. Dieting is also not recommended as it increases risk of relapsing back into an eating disorder.

I Gained Weight in Recovery, Now What?

It’s understandable that weight change can feel distressing when recovering from an eating disorder. Many people describe it as one of the biggest challenges in the healing process. Clothes no longer fitting and generally feeling uncomfortable in your body is hard and really common. Some begin to feel like they are at a good place in their recovery and think it might be a good idea to lose weight now. Some start to question if they should change the way they eat as some diets claim to improve health with or without weight loss. No matter what the reason is, it’s not recommended to restrict food categories or go on a diet as this puts the individual at high risk of relapse.

Going on a diet also isn’t helpful because diets don’t work. Up to 95% of people who go on a diet will regain the weight within 1-5 years and up to ⅔ of people who lose weight will regain more than they lost. This makes going on a diet one of the greatest predictors of weight gain. It’s important to note that gaining weight is not “bad” or to be avoided at all costs. The question is whether you would take a medication that didn’t work 95% of the time? The suggestion is to work on body acceptance, self-compassion, and challenging the body-shaming inner critic. It might not feel attainable to love your body or how it looks but you can start with body neutrality.

Wedding, Post-baby, Post-divorce/Break-up, etc.

Major life events can trigger thoughts and urges to go on a diet. If you have a wedding coming up, recently had a baby, moved away to college, changed careers, or you’re going through a break-up, this can be a period of time when the idea of focusing on food and changing your body can be the highest. It can feel easier to focus on tangible numbers like pounds, calories, macronutrients, and points than navigating the depths of grief or changes in personal identity. We often feel unprepared to navigate big changes and strong emotions so we may turn to avoidance or distraction with old eating behaviors.

There continues to be growing pressure for parents to lose weight after the birth of their child. Celebrities are praised for how quickly their bodies ‘bounce back’ and there are aggressive marketing campaigns targeting new parents more than ever before. The growing wedding industry alongside social media has increased the pressure for the newly-engaged to shrink their bodies for their fairytale wedding. There’s even an expectation to start dating again after the ending of a relationship leading to the urge to diet.

Major events in our lives can increase the desire to change our bodies. Consider questioning who profits from this desire to change and who is planting this idea. Next, consider the costs and if this is going to help you get closer to the life you want to live and the person you want to be. The pursuit of body change often takes us further away from these values.

Strong is the New Skinny

Social media has a way of setting trends in our culture that can seem helpful but become harmful. Many unintentionally share messages that can get in the way of making peace with food and your body. A more recent trend is for people to focus on being strong rather than ‘skinny’. While this trend may have been well-intentioned, it tends to keep many individuals preoccupied with food and their body. Keeping the focus on what the body looks like rather than how it feels or how enjoyable movement can be. If you’re finding yourself focusing on numbers, feeling guilty about eating certain foods, trying to manipulate the look of your body, developing an identity as the “fit” one, or feeling morally superior for your level of fitness, these may be red flags in your recovery process.

What Should I do Now?

These are just a few reasons why someone might be thinking about going on a diet. If any of the information above is resonating with you it may be helpful to reach out to your support system, including a therapist and/or registered dietitian, to talk about these urges to diet. This can be a normal part of the healing process and it’s important to get support as soon as possible. Your support team can help you address the underlying causes of the urge to diet and navigate your way back to a place of healing. It’s difficult to recover in a culture obsessed with dieting and thinness. We all deserve to live a full life, doing what matters to us and spending time with the people we care about without constantly thinking about food, weight, dieting, and our bodies.

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Resources:

Challenging Diet Rules
Challenging Diet Mentality
8 Keys To Recovery From An Eating Disorder – By Carolyn Costin
Anti Diet – By Christy Harrison, MPH, RD
Health At Every Size – By Linda Bacon, PhD
The Body is Not An Apology – By Sonya Renee Taylor
Things No One Will Tell Fat Girls – By Jes Baker

Podcasts:

Dietitan’s Unplugged
Love, Food
Food Psych
Nutrition Matters

References:

NEDA – Statistics and Research on Eating Disorders
Nutrition Journal – Weight Science: Evaluating the Evidence for a Paradigm Shift

Written by Molly Bahr, LMHC – 2020

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