Disordered Eating Linked to Restrictive Diets

Flowers and Sunrise

Americans are obsessed with thin bodies. Thin bodies are often viewed as the most attractive and healthiest. This belief leads many people to go on diets to try to lose weight. An added layer to the pressure to be thin is that what someone eats and what they look like is frequently believed to reflect if they are a good person or not [1].

People who eat healthy foods are often believed to be morally superior to people who don’t [1]. This obsession with thinness is one of the most common reasons that people develop eating disorders [2].

So what if diets actually caused more harm than good? Diets may be a stepping stone to developing a full-blown eating disorder. Diets for weight loss often limit people to only eat certain types of food or a certain number of calories or only eat during part of the day. These restrictive diets are linked to disordered eating [1].

Restrictive Diets, Disordered Eating, & Orthorexia 

We are flooded with information about dieting regularly. There is always a new, trendy diet out on the market. Within the last couple of years, one of the most popular diets is focused on “clean eating” [1]. Clean eating centers around the idea that some foods are good and others are bad or impure. As a result, people who follow clean eating diets are encouraged to strictly avoid the “bad” foods and follow certain food protocols [1].

This fixation on clean or good foods can lead people to become obsessed with healthy eating. This is known as orthorexia nervosa among eating disorder professionals [3]. It may seem silly to think that eating healthy foods could be disordered. It’s more about the person’s fixation on healthy eating and the toll this can have on their overall health [3].

Some clean eating trends, like cleansing, are the same behaviors that people with eating disorders engage in. Cleansing, also known as fasting, is a popular diet technique right now. This practice is the same behavior that some people with anorexia or bulimia struggle with.

In fact, in the last couple of years, researchers conducted a study where they compared people’s perceptions of clean eating practices. The behaviors were the same, but people were surveyed to see how they viewed the behavior if they were told it was “clean eating” versus if they were told the person was anorexic [1]. People viewed the behaviors more positively if they thought it was clean eating [1].

Sunflowers in Field

Signs of Orthorexia 

Orthorexia is not recognized as an eating disorder in the diagnostic manual that healthcare professionals use. However, awareness of this condition is increasing [3]. Signs of orthorexia include:

  • Compulsively checking ingredient lists
  • Cutting out several different food groups, such as cutting out all sugar or all dairy
  • Spending hours a day thinking about what food might be served at social events
  • Emotional distress, such as anxiety or guilty, when “clean” or “healthy” foods aren’t available
  • Obsessively following clean eating or healthy eating influencers on social media
  • Unable to eat foods that aren’t considered healthy or pure [3]

Are All Healthy Eating Diets Disordered?

It can be hard to wrap your mind around the idea that eating a “clean diet” can be harmful. It can be especially difficult to understand this if you haven’t learned about diet culture before. Clean eating diets can be harmful to someone’s mental and physical health when taken to the extreme [1].

Restrictive dieting like this can impair someone’s ability to fulfill social, professional, or academic responsibilities [1]. For example, someone may avoid social events where there aren’t any “clean” food options. This approach to food can also result in physical harm. Common medical complications from restrictive diets include malnourishment, damage to different organ systems, or death [1,3].

Now What? How to Break Free from Restrictive Dieting 

It can be really hard to let go of restrictive diets when we’re all flooded with information about diets all the time. We’re all pressured to diet in order to be as thin as possible. But these diets have shown to be harmful, especially when taken to the extreme. Extreme restrictive diets can cause harm to someone’s life and their overall health. But there’s another way!

Intuitive eating is an approach to food that is commonly talked about amongst eating disorder professionals. Working with a dietitian who practices an intuitive eating approach to food can help you develop a truly healthy relationship to food. You aren’t stuck being afraid of certain foods or your body just because society tells you to be. There’s hope for food freedom.

Flowers in Field 2


[1] Nevin, S.M. & Vantanian, L.R. (2017). The stigma of clean dieting and orthorexia nervosa. Journal of Eating Disorders, 5(37), 1-10. DOI 10.1186/s40337-017-0168-9

[2] National Eating Disorders Association. (2018). Statistics & research on eating disordershttps://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/statistics-research-eating-disorders

[3] National Eating Disorders Association. (2018). Orthorexiahttps://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/learn/by-eating-disorder/other/orthorexia

About the Author:

Samantha Bothwell PhotoSamantha Bothwell, LMFT, is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, writer, explorer, and lipstick aficionado. She became a therapist after doing her own healing work so she could become whole after spending many years living with her mind and body disconnected. She has focused her clinical work to support the healing process of survivors of sexual violence and eating disorders. She is passionate about guiding people in their return to their truest Self so they can live their most authentic, peaceful life.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective on eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published May 10, 2021 on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved on May 10, 2021, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC