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5 Warning Signs of Unhealthy Crash Dieting & Eating Disorders

By Ann Olson

diet mistakes to avoidYou’ve probably heard it before: A friend or family member loses weight by going on a crash diet, detoxing, or eating too few calories. Or perhaps you’ve tried to lose weight by severely restricting your diet, to the point of feeling miserable or weak. Unfortunately, due to the unhealthy eating habits they promote, these diets can lead to deprivation, binging, or eating disorders.

So how do you figure out if your diet habits are healthy or unhealthy? There are a number of signs that may indicate you’re on the wrong track to weight loss.

Unhealthy Diet Signs to Watch Out For

Sign #1: You Only Eat Certain Foods Every Day and Refuse to Be Flexible

Although eating a variety of whole grains and fruits and vegetables is good for your health – and your waistline, if the portions are calorie-controlled – only eating certain foods everyday without any leeway promotes an eating habit called “rigid dieting,” which can promote unhealthy behavior. For example, if you only eat broccoli, brown rice, and chicken everyday and won’t eat anything else in fear of getting fat, this is rigid dieting.

The Bad News
Think rigid dieting is the key to a healthy, balanced diet? Think again. Two scientific studies statistically show that rigid dieters are often not mentally healthy.

For instance, a 2002 study published in the journal Appetite showed that non-obese women who ate a rigid diet had more mood problems and symptoms related to an eating disorder. In contrast, women who did not eat rigid diets, called “flexible dieters,” did not have these problems. And though rigid dieters obsessed more about their body size, they weighed more than flexible dieters.

Furthermore, a 1999 study also showed that rigid dieting habits caused people to overeat more often, and, in turn, weigh more than flexible dieters.

The Lesson
Severely restricting what you can eat doesn’t work – in fact, dieting rigidly can actually make you weigh more. You’re also more likely to have mood problems and obsess about your body, which just isn’t mentally healthy.

Instead of being so restrictive, try being more flexible with your dietary habits. Eat a variety of foods instead of only eating from two to three food groups, and stop obsessively counting every calorie, carb, and gram of sugar you consume. Instead, eat smaller portions, replace high-calorie grains with vegetables, and don’t drink your calories.

don't limit yourself to only certain food groups on certain days

Sign #2: You Don’t Eat Enough Calories

To lose weight, you need to consume fewer calories than you burn. But some people take this guideline to extremes, severely restricting calories to the point of starvation, causing serious mental and physical harm.

The Bad News
Starvation can get you skinny, but it isn’t healthy. The Minnesota Starvation Experiment, which reduced a group of men’s caloric intakes from 3,200 calories to just 1,560 calories – a nearly 50% decrease – showed that men developed numerous psychological problems caused by self-starvation, including depression and social withdrawal, which are also common symptoms of anorexia nervosa. Ancel Keys, who carried out this experiment from 1944 to 1945, was the prime investigator for this study.

In addition, many of the men also showed declines in concentration, comprehension, and judgment.

The Lesson
Fewer calories are not always better, and if you eat less than 50% of your required caloric intake to maintain your weight, you risk developing serious psychological complications.

To lose weight safely, utilize a smaller caloric deficit. Try cutting your caloric intake by no more than 20% of what you need to maintain your weight. For example, if you need to eat 2,000 calories a day to maintain your weight, eat no less than 1,600 calories to lose weight.

food calorie counts

Sign #3: When You Overeat, You Over-exercise

Everyone has bad days – some days you might indulge in too many cookies or consume too many calories. In response, you may try to remedy the situation by over-exercising in hopes of burning off the excess calories. But in serious instances, huge, uncontrollable binges can lead some people to exercise to the point of injury.

The Bad News
While regular exercise isn’t bad, compulsively exercising to get rid of excess calories is considered purging behavior, a symptom common in anorexics or bulimics. The problem with compulsive exercise is its intent – trying to “purge” the calories out as an attempt to control your weight, even when it causes psychological harm.

For instance, compulsive exercisers make excuses to skip work or school to exercise away the calories. As a result, their work and school performance suffers. Over time, the exercise becomes an addiction, and compulsive exercisers don’t just exercise to purge away calories from occasional overeating – they may exercise excessively even when they don’t overeat, in an attempt to keep their caloric intake as low as possible. This in itself is a serious sign of disordered eating or an eating disorder.

The Lesson
If you ate too much, overexercising isn’t the answer. Instead, accept it as a mistake and don’t do anything extreme to take care of the excess calories.

Everyone screws up, but it’s what you do the next day that makes the bigger difference. Continue your diet as normal the following day, and try to avoid overeating in the future, whether by changing the foods you eat, eating more meals, or increasing your water intake. Sometimes people mistake dehydration for real hunger.

exhausted woman exercise

Sign #4: You Regularly Fast to Punish Yourself for Not Eating Well

You might not always follow your diet perfectly – sometimes, you may eat more calories than you mean to, or eat one too many pieces of pie. That’s life, right? But some people try to fix their mistakes by going on daylong or even week-long fasts, hoping to ward off weight gain. So what’s so bad about this?

The Bad News
Fasting, like overexercising after not eating “right,” is considered purging behavior, which is common amongst anorexics and bulimics. People with disordered eating habits often have unrealistic expectations when it comes to dieting, expecting complete perfection from their diet. But don’t fall into this vicious trap.

Veering from your diet is normal – even for over-achievers.  If you try to fix every little dieting mistake by using extreme methods, such as fasting, you’re more likely to cause more mental or physical harm in the process.

The issue here is the intent behind your desire to fast. If you’re fasting for religious reasons, this isn’t symptomatic of an eating disorder; if you’re fasting because you ate a cookie and think your entire diet is ruined, this is unhealthy.

The Lesson
Don’t go to extremes if you make a small mistake while dieting. Making one little mistake doesn’t mean your diet is ruined – successful dieters lose weight because they’re consistent with their diet habits, not perfect.

don't punish yourself for making dieting mistakes

Sign #5: You Detox Regularly

From Beyoncé to Gwyneth Paltrow, celebrities are raving about detox diets as a fast way to lose weight and remove toxins from the digestive system. Toxins, which supposedly lurk in the foods and beverages people commonly consume (such as processed foods), can build up in the digestive system, causing people to gain weight and feel miserable.

By following a detox diet, which usually includes fruit juices, water, and organic veggies and fruits, you’ll clean yourself out and lose weight faster.

The Bad News
Here’s a dose of reality: Like many herbal weight loss supplements, detox diets do not work. In fact, the Mayo Clinic states that detox diets don’t eliminate any of these so-called toxins. Instead, a better eliminator of toxins is your liver and kidneys, which routinely remove toxins from your body. Detox diets are also extremely low in calories, which causes people to lose weight – not toxins.

Furthermore, going on a detox diet can cause you to rapidly lose weight, which isn’t healthy. Losing weight too fast can cause you to lose muscle mass, which, over time, can lower your metabolic rate. Not eating enough calories can also cause fatigue and irritability. If the detox diet recommends using laxatives, you’ll also experience side effects such as diarrhea, abdominal discomfort, and dehydration.

The Lesson
Detox diets aren’t magical ways to lose weight. In fact, they’re dangerous fad diets that cause you to eat so few calories that you drop weight drastically and feel fatigued. In addition, consuming laxatives can cause even more unpleasant side effects. Depending on how many laxatives you take, it can cause everything from abdominal pain to severe diarrhea.

If you want to lose weight, there’s no need to detox your system. Just watch your portions, focus on eating more vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and protein, and exercise regularly.

detox pink writing

Final Word

There are many paths you can take when dieting, but it’s important to remember to put your health first. Some dieting myths, such as detoxing or fasting, aren’t healthy ways to lose weight, and starving yourself to a slimmer physique can have dangerous psychological consequences.

Instead of going to extremes, try to find a balance with your food intake. Aim for a variety of foods to meet your nutrition and diet goals. Don’t forget fat too, such as peanut butter or nuts. In moderation, fat is actually good for you.

What healthy dieting tips do you suggest?

(photo credit: Shutterstock)

Ann Olson
Ann Olson is a health writer and full-time frugalista currently living in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Saving money is her passion, and she'll cut any corner in the pursuit of becoming passively wealthy. She's also a diet expert and amateur bodybuilder who credits her active lifestyle for keeping her healthy and happy.

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