Clinical literature, academic research and personal memoirs about eating disorders all ignore one crucial and salient fact about these illnesses: they all start with a diet.
This seems like an obvious point. The inception of an eating disorder is right in front of us. Dieting is an integral part of our culture, a rite of passage for all adolescents. Weight loss and the compliments that ensue are a sign of the ultimate gold star of success.
What is lost on the communities that condone dieting is the inherent risk of this ritualized practice. For most people, dieting is one of a few things: a short-term lark, a series of new beginnings which always fail or a misstep in how to eat healthily. But for a small percentage of people, it is the start of a chronic, severe illness.
Dieting is essentially self-inflicted starvation. The goal is to eat a limited amount of food, significantly less than one's body needs, in order to lose weight. Dieting is somehow considered safe and healthy, largely due to the influences of the cultural norm of thinness and a powerful diet industry. The consequences are almost completely ignored.
To state the dangers of dieting as clearly as possible, the number one risk factor for developing an eating disorder is dieting and restricting calories over a significant period of time. If people didn't diet, there would be no public health problem of eating disorders in this country. Prior to the late 1960's, eating disorders were a very rare phenomenon. The increase in dieting has in large part spurred the skyrocketing incidence of eating disorders.
This fact remains unheralded and ignored despite the explosion of public information about eating disorders. Parents will follow a doctor's or nutritionist's advice to put a child on a diet. Most parents won't bat an eye when a teenager diets and loses weight. The willful collective ignorance about dieting continues to leave children unprotected from this growing problem.
The next post will address more clearly why dieting causes eating disorders.