Break the Cycle of Dieting and Deprivation to Avoid a Lifetime Spent Battling Eating Disorders

By Jennifer Sygo, The National Post
May 6, 2014

Would you put an eight-year-old on a diet? Should a 13-year-old feel ashamed of her body?

Most people would answer a resounding “no!” to these questions, but far too often the reality is “yes.” May 6 is International No Diet Day, a day to draw attention to the detrimental and even dangerous sides of dieting, a behaviour that can seem relatively harmless at first, but can ultimately have serious consequences.

With evidence that dieting can start well before the teenage years -- you can find dieting behaviour in children eight years old and younger, and evidence of weight-related concerns in kids as young as five -- experts from groups such as the National Eating Disorders Information Centre (NEDIC) and the National Initiative for Eating Disorders (NIED) caution that the seemingly benign act of going on a diet can descend into chronic restriction, overeating or bingeing, weight cycling, and even full-blown eating disorders.

“The first behavioural step in the development of an eating disorder for many is starting on a diet,” Merryl Bear, the director for NEDIC, said in an interview.

While dieting might seem like a logical way to control weight in our obesogenic (promoting weight gain) world, ironically, diets often backfire: Not only do regular dieters tend to have a higher body weight over time than those who don’t diet, but they also suffer the emotional consequences that come from constant restriction, and the guilt and shame cycle that results from falling off the wagon.

And while type 2 diabetes, which tends to be associated with excess body weight, is on the rise in children, the rate of new cases of eating disorders in children between the ages of five and 12 is estimated to be substantially higher — perhaps four times the rate of diabetes. Yet despite all of the dire warnings associated with dieting, it’s estimated that more than a quarter of Grade 9 girls engage in weight loss behaviour — even though most of them have a healthy body weight to begin with.

So, what are some non-dieting options to achieve both physical and mental health as it relates to weight? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Practice body size acceptance. The next time you are about to criticize yourself or someone else because of their weight or size, stop yourself. Odds are, your comments — even if they are kept inside your mind — will do more harm than good. We know shaming is not an effective way of controlling weight, and that negative comments about weight can be internalized for years, even a lifetime, especially in children and youth.
  2. Focus on behaviours. Despite what the magazines and diet books might tell you, you can’t control what happens on the scale — you can only control your behaviours. By focusing on making the right choices — like packing a lunch instead of eating out, eating more vegetables or making regular physical activity a priority, you can put yourself in a position to achieve a healthy, realistic body weigh. Likewise, when you make changes to your habits, focus on non-weight-related outcomes, like changes to your energy, sleep, health, or cravings: All are important signs of progress that are easily overlooked when you focus only on the numbers on a scale.
  3. Look at food positively, rather than punitively. Yes, ice cream tastes good, and no, it’s not exactly healthy. But telling yourself you’ll never eat it again is a recipe for disaster. Instead, focus on the foods you want to include more of in your diet — for example, think about how you would like to try a new smoothie recipe, eat more nuts and seeds, or learn how to cook dark green leafy vegetables, rather than fixating on “giving up” certain foods.
  4. Embrace intuitive eating. To eat intuitively means to truly listen to your hunger and fullness, with the ultimate aim of making peace with food. This might sound obvious for those who already have a good relationship with food, but for dieters, binge eaters, and restrictors, it can be incredibly difficult to learn how to trust your hunger and listen to your body. Learning how to enjoy food, eat for pleasure, and accept the body takes time and practice, but the result can be incredibly freeing.

If you have the sense that dieting or exercising has gotten out of control, it’s important to ask for help. NEDIC (nedic.ca) offers a toll-free help line (1-866-633-4220), and both NEDIC and the NIED (nied.ca) offer workshops and educational tools for all ages, as well as directories of service providers with experience in the area of disordered eating and eating disorders.

-Jennifer Sygo, MSc., RD, is a registered dietitian and sports nutritionist at Cleveland Clinic Canada, and author of the newly released nutrition book Unmasking Superfoods (HarperCollins, $19.99). Visit her on the Web at jennifersygo.com and send your comments and nutrition-related questions to her at info@jennifersygo.com.