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Subclinical Eating Disorders: The Dangers of Dieting

By Joanna Kay--About 4% percent of people will be diagnosed with bulimia in their lifetime. For anorexia, the percentage can be as low as 1%.

Relatively speaking, that’s a pretty small amount of people. So why do we talk about eating disorders and why do we devote an entire week to raising awareness about them?

Because National Eating Disorders Awareness Week isn’t just about the conditions we know as anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder. (Although these are of course very important issues to discuss and get far too little public attention for how dangerous and deadly they are. But don't get me started on eating disorder injustices...)

What’s also at issue here are the cultural attitudes about food and body image that surround us.

We are inundated with messages about food and dieting — which foods are “clean” and which foods aren’t, how to zap unwanted belly fat, what exercise routine the Kardashians are doing to get bikini-ready, why we should avoid carbs— No! fats— No! sugar... Ehhh just avoid all of it.

(By the way—chronic dieting doesn’t actually work. But that’s another story.)

We receive constant messages about health, many of which aren't the least bit healthy. The ubiquity of these messages makes them hard to avoid and even harder to tell which—if any—are true. What is certain is that it is VERY easy to get caught up in the melee.

Just look at some of the numbers:

  • More than 108 million people in the United States are on a diet. The weight-loss industry—including diet books, diet drugs, and weight-loss surgeries—brings in more than $20 billion.\
  • 75% of American women surveyed endorse unhealthy thoughts, feelings or behaviors related to food or their bodies.
  • 91% of women recently surveyed on a college campus had attempted to control their weight through dieting, 22% dieted “often” or “always.”
  • In elementary school fewer than 25% of girls diet regularly. Yet those who do know what dieting involves and can talk about calorie restriction and food choices for weight loss fairly effectively.
  • 35% of “normal dieters” progress to pathological dieting. Of those, 20-25% progress to partial or full-syndrome eating disorders

Why is this dangerous? For one thing, diets often are catalysts for eating disorders. In fact, eating disorder professionals believe that dieting is the most common precipitating factor in the development of an eating disorder.

Moreover, the culture of diet-talk and good-food-vs.-bad-food wreaks havoc on the other 96% of people who don’t receive an eating disorder diagnosis. These people may not land in a treatment center, but they nevertheless experience some or many of the same issues—exercising excessively, restricting food intake, “making up for” what they eat, suffering anxiety and depression, and so on.

There are many terms to describe this experience of having some eating disorder symptoms, but not all: subclinical eating disorders, Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified, Other Specified Feeding and Eating Disorders, and “Almost Anorexic.” Regardless of what we call it, this group of people suffers the same confusion, anxiety, and even self-hatred that people with eating disorders do. They’re even at risk for the same health issues.

And yet, because they may remain at a relatively healthy weight, and because their behaviors blend in with the rest of our clean-eating diet-savvy society, their plight goes unnoticed.

That doesn’t make their suffering “less than” that of people with full-blown eating disorders. And that doesn’t put these women and men in any less danger.

So let's use National Eating Disorder Awareness Week to spotlight the harmful messages we receive about food and dieting, and challenge the popular belief that we need to take extraordinary measures to control our natural body weights. Let’s block out the confusing and conflicting messages and discover for ourselves what it means to be truly healthy.

About this blogger: Joanna Kay is a New York City writer in recovery from anorexia nervosa. She has written for the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA),, and other mental health sites. She is also the author of The Middle Ground, a blog that deals with issues facing people who are midway through eating disorder recovery. Find Joanna on Twitter and on her blog.

For more by Joanna:

Stop the Mannequin Madness

A "Cure" for Bulimia? Not So Fast...

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Proud2Bme is an online community created by and for teens. We cover everything from fashion and beauty to news, culture, and entertainment—all with the goal of promoting positive body image and encouraging healthy attitudes about food and weight.

This site was developed in partnership with Riverduinen and made possible by generous contributions from JPMorgan Chase, Globant, the University of Delaware, and The Hilda & Preston Davis Foundation.

Proud2Bme was first launched in the Netherlands by Riverduinen, a mental health organization that has licensed the concept to the National Eating Disorders Association. Unless otherwise noted, all original content on this site is copyright The National Eating Disorders Association. The Proud2Bme brand, logos, and trademarks are property of Rivierduinen.