More threads by David Baxter PhD

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
The Difference Between an Utter Eating Disorder and Dieting?
by Margot Rittenhouse, MSc, Eating Disorder Hope
February 12, 2018

97% of dieters regain all of the weight they lose within three years [1]. Further, losing weight doesn’t actually improve health biomarkers such as blood pressure, fasting glucose, or triglyceride levels.1

Despite these facts, diet fads continue to exist, now adapting to the new “health and wellness” movement by calling diets “lifestyle changes.”

It’s all the same diet culture negativity with a shiny new package, and it makes interpreting eating behaviors difficult.

Someone may believe that they are successfully adhering to a “clean eating” diet when they are actually showing symptoms of orthorexia.

Individuals following the ketogenic diet likely have no idea that ketosis itself is a life-threatening condition that indicates insufficient carbohydrate intake.

With this “rebranding,” how do we tell the difference between these extreme diets or disordered eating?

Below are three hallmarks of both dieting and disordered eating behaviors. The severity of each can mean the difference between a diet or an eating disorder.

Shame & Guilt
As one clinician aptly observed, “issues of self-image, self-concept, body image, self-worth, and self-doubt are extensively grounded in the domain of shame”.2

Insofar as diets are concerned, we are incessantly inundated with images and products that tell us we are not enough, activating within us the shame and guilt that will motivate us to do whatever necessary to fulfill society’s expectations.

The same shame that motivates people to diet becomes increasingly dangerous as it is fed.

For those with an ED, shame is their constant companion, whispering hurtful and harmful reminders in their ear that they need to take their dieting behaviors further and further to become valuable.

Food Rules
Food rules are also hallmarks of both dieting and eating disorders. By their very nature, both involve adhering to specific “do’s and don’ts” regarding food.

With diets, individuals may engage in specific food rules to adhere to the program they’re using.

For an individual with an ED, these food rules are often self-imposed and have higher stakes attached. The ability to follow these regulations is tied to the individual’s self-worth. Coming back to the first point, what follows is immense shame and guilt.

You or your loved one may have ventured into ED territory if following food rules begins to feel more like a compulsion or a test of character than adhering to instructions.

Life Interference
Again, both dieting and eating disorders involve a lifestyle shake-up, but to what degree?

Dieting indeed involves changing what foods you are eating and may also require an adjustment to sleep or exercise.

A diet has gone too far and may be morphing into an ED when these changes go from small alterations to big ones.

A diet has become a disorder when it interferes with an individual’s ability to live their lives. If your relationships, career, or ability to function with the outside world are impaired, it is time to examine your behaviors and seek help.

Your Safest Bet
When it comes to disordered eating or dieting, they genuinely aren’t that different. Both involve unhealthy and unsustainable behaviors that are physically and mentally harmful.

Instead of attempting to determine the difference between the two, simply avoid both. Diets make seemingly innocent promises that can quickly become an ED.

When diet culture throws a new fad your way, consider if any of the “red flags” above are present. If so, call it out for the unhelpful and negative nonsense that it is and don’t waste your time on it.


  1. Brown, H. The weight of the evidence. Slate. Retrieved on 03 January 2018 from Diets do not work: The thin evidence that losing weight makes you healthier.
  2. Burney, J., Irwin, H. J. (2000). Shame and guilt in women with eating-disorder symptomatology. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 56:1, 51-61.
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