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When a Diet Becomes Something Else

Our eating disorder expert offers guidance on how to spot the red flags of disordered eating

By Melanie Peters   |   August 29, 2019

With so much focus on the obesity epidemic and the constant bombardment on social media platforms about the “right” way to eat, it’s no wonder many Americans (about 50 percent of us every year) are on one diet or another at any given time.

But dieting for our health can easily turn into something that’s quite the opposite. Paying too much attention to what, when and how much we eat can lead to disturbing patterns, ones that don’t support a healthy lifestyle, perhaps signaling something more worrying: disordered eating.

Erin Reeves, RD, director of nutrition services with the UC San Diego Eating Disorders Program, helps us understand what red flags to pay attention to, what a healthy lifestyle encompasses and where and how to seek help if needed.

When it comes to dieting, what are some red flags that signal disordered eating as opposed to healthy eating? Are the signs different for men than for women?

Here are some red flags to pay attention to:

  • Most of your thoughts are about food — either in what you can or cannot eat, what you’re going to make, where you will buy your food, etc.
  • Overwhelming regret or guilt after eating, feeling compelled to work off what you just ate or refusing social events you typically would attend due to the food.
  • Help for Eating Disorders

    If you need to seek help with an eating disorder, call the UC San Diego Eating Disorders Center at 858-534-8019 or you can email us at
    We offer free two-hour assessments. You can learn more at our website

  • Increased depression or anxiety.
  • Your range of acceptable foods narrows over time. An example would be adding multiple “diet rules” together.
  • Increased compulsions to weigh yourself or body check (critically look at certain areas of your body for changes or overall presentation).

I think this can be the same for men as for women, although most of what I listed are considered more of a social norm for women to engage in. But that doesn’t make these behaviors any less disordered, even for men.

Is there a particular diet that you’d steer people away from? For example, intermittent fasting has become very popular but is it a healthy way to approach eating?

dinner plate with lettuce leaf

I know this is an annoyingly broad statement, but any diet that you cannot maintain for your whole life should be avoided. Although most diets claim to be “lifestyle” changes, they are typically requiring you to adhere to unrealistic food rules that evoke guilt and shame for those unable to adhere to those rules. Due to these unrealistic guidelines, diets can be hard for people to follow, which means they’re either “on” or “off” of the diet. Typically, the harder you go “on” the diet, the harder you fall “off” and swing to the other side. This is why yo-yo dieting — a pattern of weight loss, weight gain, weight loss — occurs.

Our bodies are hard-wired to want to be at a certain weight and will go to great length to help us stay there — like obsessing about food or decreasing your metabolic rate to fight under-eating. Yes, it’s fabulous to add some whole grains and fruits and vegetables into your life but not at the cost of donuts and pizza.

If you allow a variety of foods into your diet and don’t condemn yourself for eating one food over another, then it’s much easier to maintain balance.

Finally, is it possible to be overweight and have an eating disorder?

We see people of all shapes and sizes with eating disorders, therefore weight most definitely does not prevent someone from having life-altering issues with food. It’s hard to even feel confident that weight is any indicator of health unless a person is an extreme outlier for what is considered healthy, by which I mean either extremely thin/underweight or morbidly obese. For those of us in the middle of the bell curve, weight is very much NOT an indicator of health.

Health is dietary intake, but it’s also movement, mental health, social relationships, romantic relationships, self-esteem, genetic makeup and so much more. Someone who is thin but feels depressed most of the time, can’t focus in their morning class because they’re stressed about the creamer in their coffee that broke their ketosis, flakes on social plans because they occur when they’re supposed to be fasting, spends hours in the gym trying to “earn” happy hour with friends — this is not a “healthy” person.