Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Pathological dieting: precursor to eating disorders

August 15, 2010 by  
Filed under Dieting, Eating Disorders, Featured

This guest post provided by Heidi_PsyD from

The statistics are eye opening: one out of three women and one out of four men are on a diet at any given time. Maybe not such a surprise in our weight-obsessed culture of thinness. This mentality has spawned a diet industry with liquids, supplements, books and advice to help shed those extra pounds. One of the more popular offshoots is reality TV’s : The Biggest Loser.

Another statistic: 35% of occasional dieters progress into pathological dieting. Many advance to full-blown eating disorders. This was the case for Season 3 Biggest Loser finalist Kai Hibbard, who recently discussed how she developed an eating disorder following the show’s finale. She cites examples such as contestants who were forced to work out against doctor’s orders or who would limit fluid intake prior to weigh-ins, sometimes to the point of dehydration.

Kai’s story, although very public, is not unusual. Carlene, a 21-year-old West Chester University Student walked the same slippery slope. “When I got to school I gained the freshman 15. I went on a diet and found myself becoming more and more obsessive.” It wasn’t until her roommates contacted Carlene’s parents with concerns about her extreme weight loss that Carlene was able to seek help for anorexia. “I never thought I could be that successful of a dieter let alone have an eating disorder. I wish I’d known the warning signs to look for.”

“A calorie-restricted diet is the most commonly reported “trigger” for an eating disorder. Many of my patients, began their eating disorder after initially losing weight on purpose,” says Theresa Sage, R.D., a nutritionist at Kingley Health in Newtown, Pa. “When they realize that their new weight has not protected them from their problems or negative feelings, they have the mistaken belief that more weight loss was needed. This will continue until they seek help and address the underlining issues that need to be resolved.”

What exactly is pathological dieting? Pathological dieting is that is dieting that is in some way unhealthy, such as being overly limiting or too low calorically. Pathological dieting is also obsessive and may be accompanied by behaviors that are seen in eating disorders, such as skipping meals or vomiting to get rid of calories.

For men and women who do develop eating disorders there is often a sense of gratification in the attention they receive through losing weight. This, coupled with a perfectionistic personality and the mindset “more weight loss is better” can lead to disordered eating. The eating disorder becomes a coping skill to deal with stress, feelings of low self-esteem or other conflicts.

The following warning signs can be helpful to assess whether dieting is pathological.

Are you:

• Eating only low or non-fat foods or avoiding carbohydrates?
• Using diet pills, laxatives, diuretics or vomiting after meals?
• Weighing yourself more than once a week?
• Constantly thinking about/dreaming about food
• Losing weight past the point of what is healthy for your range?
• Feeling tired or depressed?

If you are having any of these problems, it may be helpful to seek the services of a therapist or nutritionist.

-Heidi Dalzell, PsyD.



6 Responses to “Pathological dieting: precursor to eating disorders”
  1. Ashley says:

    These diet studies and statistic always confuse me because I never know what they are talking about in terms of what is a diet, really? Are we talking about fad diets where the aim is to lose weight or maintain a certain weight or shape, calorie, sugar, carb restriction, etc or are we including a people eating healthily to gain more engery, etc. Everyone has a diet. I wish that in more of these studies that that clarify exactly what they mean when they are talking about “1 in every 3 women are on a diet.” It really doesn’t tell us what we *really* need to know.

  2. struggling girl says:

    Ah pathological dieting. I’m totally guilty. I didn’t realize there was actually a term for this before I read this article. I guess I need to do more research. It definitely poses a new question in my head: is what I have just pathological dieting, or is it ednos? Thanks for the heads up.
    In my blog My Black and White World, I talk about my struggle with depression and body image.

    –struggling girl

  3. Heidi_PsyD says:

    Hi Struggling Girl,

    I am so glad that the article was helpful. Pathological dieting is a term we use to describe the behavior of dieting in an overly restrictive way. EDNOS is a “catch all” diagnosis that denotes an eating disorder that does not meet full criteria for anorexia or bulimia or it is also a term we reserve for binge eating disorder, which is not yet an “official” diagnosis. That said — yes, you can have both. Keep up the reading and hard work. It will pay off. Recovery IS possible!

  4. Marcia Noyes says:

    Dear Heidi,

    Found your blog right after I wrote “Growing Up Fat and Getting Over It” — a blog for at

    In that blog I discussed a time in my life when I became anorexic for a short while. And the trigger was a low calorie diet. It’s an interesting and very personal read. Enjoy.

  5. Hmm is anyone else having problems with the pictures on this blog loading?
    I’m trying to find out if its a problem on my end or if it’s the blog.
    Any feed-back would be greatly appreciated.


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