The term diet originally meant the different types of food a person ate each day. The concept described a factual list of foods rather than a prescribed or limited one.
A diet has clearly become something different in our current world. Today dieting implies intentional food restriction in order to lose weight. The act of going on a diet means one needs to lose weight and will make a concerted effort to do so. It means judgment about one's body and weight. It means someone is taking a supposed virtuous and health-minded step towards wellness. It means something is wrong and a diet will somehow fix the problem.
Although dieting originates with concerns about weight, by and large the result of dieting is to attempt to fix the ills in one's life.
The result of any temporarily successful diet is widespread praise. Others comment on changes in weight and compliment on a regular basis. Dieting is a public act that warrants public attention. This is often the main reason people diet.
Paradoxically, hard data about dieting shows that 98% of them fail. In fact, the large majority of people end up gaining weight after a diet. Despite a plethora of evidence against the benefit, people regularly attempt to diet. There is nothing else to replace the collective desire for the praise that attends short-term weight loss.
With this background, it's clear to see why adolescents, who are constantly searching for an identity and praise, easily latch onto dieting and weight loss as a marker of personal success. No wonder dieting has become a rite of passage in high school. But exposing most teenagers to dieting looks more like a horrible experiment in the effects of widespread starvation than an introduction to adulthood.
Chronic food deprivation triggers the biological survival mechanism of starvation. Humans are genetically programmed to respond to food restriction in very specific ways to survive. Symptoms include obsession with food, all consuming hunger, the desire to overeat and focus on all things related to food, to name a few. Specifically, these symptoms look suspiciously like eating disorder symptoms.
In other words, most eating disorder symptoms are the biological response to starvation gone awry. Our diet culture has in large part caused the sharp spike in the incidence of eating disorders.
As long as dieting is a central part of our general ethos, eating disorders are here to stay. I'll write about some thoughts on how to combat dieting in the next post.