The Dark Side of the Fad Diet

By Brittany Kerfoot 03/17/17

Because I had dropped a few pounds from doing Whole30, I became addicted to the feeling and never wanted it to end. It started with eating healthy, but quickly devolved into severe obsession.

A woman sitting against a wall, looking at a plate of vegetables and a bottle of water several feet in front of her
Obsessing over healthy eating can lead to purging.

I started taking diet pills when I was eleven years old. I remember they were large, cylinder-shaped things that made me gag when I tried to swallow them. I took one every morning for months; it would often get stuck in the middle of my throat and I could feel it there all day, an uncomfortable reminder of how desperately I wanted to be skinny. I don’t remember how I got them; I can’t imagine any pharmacy would sell weight loss drugs to a middle schooler, so it’s possible I stole them. The only reason they helped me lose weight was because they made me feel so nauseated, I didn't want to eat. One day my parents found them in my school backpack and made me throw them away, so I had to find other ways to obtain that euphoric feeling of slenderness, beauty. Since then, I’ve tried just about everything to achieve my ideal body, from dieting to excessive exercise, vegetarianism to cutting carbs, but it wasn’t until college that I had fully settled into a full-blown eating disorder.

I decided to jump on the Whole30 bandwagon—a fad diet consisting of only natural, unprocessed foods for an entire month—as a New Year’s resolution about a year after I got married. I had put on a little weight since the wedding and often felt tired and lethargic. I had also noticed that my bulimia was on an upswing and the frequency of my purging had become reminiscent of the time, years ago, when I was deep in the bowels of my disorder with rapidly failing health. I figured eating better would eliminate many of the trigger foods that compelled me to purge; it was rare for me to purge a salad because I didn’t feel guilty about eating lettuce and carrots, so Whole30 would hopefully remove the shame I associated with eating junk food and quell my bulimic urges.

My therapist had been focusing on teaching me how to feel my shame when it came to food, but then to let it pass and move on. The hope was that I would eventually stop labeling certain foods as “bad” all together, and learn how to live in moderation. I thought Whole30 was a good place to start to jumpstart healthy eating habits and give me a break from the anxiety of choosing my meals each day, and my therapist agreed. I promised to listen to my body and let her know if and when I felt myself slipping. But as most of us know, addiction isn’t that neat and tidy. I have always been pretty forthcoming and open in therapy about almost everything except for my ED: I will lie, evade, or conceal information to keep the whole truth hidden. When it comes to addiction, full disclosure is often an elusive beast.

Throughout my month of “healthy” eating, I made several self-discoveries and learned a lot about my already rocky relationship with food. When I stuck to the program and ate the foods on the preset menu, I didn’t purge; I didn’t even want to. I no longer felt bloated or overstuffed, and most of my anxiety surrounding mealtime had disappeared. I also lost a little weight and found myself sleeping better once my body had gotten used to the lack of processed sugar I was feeding it. Although I was frequently hungry and tired of eating the same foods every day, I felt better about myself and my body, which seemed like more than a fair trade for a little food fatigue. I also started eating foods I had always assumed I wouldn’t like, such as lentils and plain almond butter, and it felt good to expand on the few foods I felt safe eating.

But there was also a dark side to this miracle diet. Because I had dropped a few pounds from doing Whole30, I became addicted to the feeling and never wanted it to end. The same way purging can become an addiction, so too can the sensation of losing weight. Despite the fact that I found the diet to be limiting and at times rather stressful, I knew I had to keep going. The biggest problem was that my motivation for completing the program had now shifted away from getting healthy to just getting skinny. I had also simply exchanged one eating disorder for another; instead of purging, I was restricting, which is a main component of anorexia.

Right in the middle of my month-long commitment, just as I had begun seeing progress, I had a bad day and decided to treat myself with a milkshake during dinner with a friend. I knew I wasn’t supposed to veer off the diet, but I figured I had been doing so well, one cheat wouldn’t do much damage. I enjoyed the shake at first, but after drinking about half, I knew I wouldn't be able to keep it down. I finished it all, slurping the last of it through my straw and licking the sticky residue from my fingers, and immediately excused myself to the bathroom. One of the pillars of my bulimia is an intense self-hatred when I have to purge, since purging only follows eating something “bad”; when coupled with a rigid, rule-laden diet, I was essentially setting myself up to fail. The shame is bad enough on a regular day, but when I failed at both sticking to a regimented diet and by eating something off my “unsafe food” list, I felt doubly awful.

It wasn’t until after my 30 days were up that I searched the term “eating disorder” on the Whole30 website and found a post titled Dear Melissa: The Whole30 and Eating Disorders. In it, a woman who battled an ED wrote in to ask if this diet was right for her considering her past. Melissa Hartwig, a Certified Sports Nutritionist, gave a response about which I have mixed feelings. I was glad to see her caution that the strict rules and rigidity of Whole30 could be a trigger for a disordered person, and advise anyone who has a disorder to ask a professional before starting a new diet, however, she also employed terms I found to be misleading and potentially dangerous.

Hartwig wrote that she believes “eating real, nutrient-dense, unprocessed foods is the healthiest way to nourish your body and break unhealthy cravings and habits.” This statement is problematic for a number of reasons, the first being her implication that eating disorders fall under the “unhealthy cravings and habits” classification, which is not only offensive, it’s categorically false. Any ED is a psychological disorder that, according to the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), is a “serious emotional and physical problem that can have life-threatening consequences.” Eating disorders have also been described as a disease, a condition, an addiction, and an illness (read: not a craving or habit). To trivialize such a serious affliction is, at best, a dangerous miscategorization.

It is also important to recognize that “healthy” means different things for different people. Throughout my decades-long battle with bulimia, the definition of “healthy” for me has run the gamut—from losing weight to gaining weight to simply staying alive. A person can even develop an addiction to eating healthy foods, a condition called orthorexia nervosa. Orthorexia may begin with a person’s conscious effort to live a healthier life, but can quickly devolve into obsessing over food and becoming severely restrictive in their diet.

What many people fail to understand is that an eating disorder is about much more than losing weight or a lack of self-control. Each person has their own predispositions, which could range anywhere from their genes to prior trauma to a desperate need for control. I think I embody a combination of all three, mixed with deep-rooted insecurities and an abusive childhood. But regardless of the reasons behind it, a disease like anorexia or bulimia can be deadly: according to the South Carolina Department of Mental Health, an estimated 20% of eating disorder sufferers will die from their disease. Eating disorders also don’t discriminate; they can and do affect any gender, race, age group, and ethnic background.

What I failed to realize when I started Whole30 is that no amount of healthy eating or mindful exercise can cure me of my disease. Since I was a child, I have never felt thin enough or pretty enough, and I don’t know if I ever will. It took a long time for me to admit I had a problem; for years, I told myself and my loved ones that I had everything under control, it wasn’t a big deal. My friends staged an intervention once and I laughed them off, told them they were worried over nothing; meanwhile, I wore baggy sweatshirts to hide my jutting collarbones and used makeup to conceal my jaundiced skin.

There is no cure for an eating disorder, no foolproof solution that will make it all better. Adding more fruits and vegetables to my diet is a good step as it lowers my anxiety and the probability I will purge, but it’s far from a fail-safe remedy. Bulimia is my cross to bear, and it’s something from which I will suffer for the rest of my life. I am learning that the key to living with my illness isn’t in the kitchen or at the farmer’s market, but in safe spaces like with my therapist, husband, and empathetic friends. It’s in taking it not only one day at time, but one meal at a time, and accepting that this is about more than food and the number on the scale.

This disease is like a cancer that can resurface without warning, but it’s important to know the warning signs and listen to your body. Getting help for my addiction was so difficult because first I had to admit I was sick, and it was even harder to want to get better. For so long, I had equated recovery with getting “fat” and losing control—my two biggest fears—but I slowly came to the understanding that my disorder was the one in control, not me. As soon as my bulimia told me it was time to purge, I listened. My disorder kept me from social events with friends, and relegated me to my bedroom night after night. Recovery doesn’t means cured, but it does give me more freedom to live the life I want without constant, nagging fear and anxiety. I am not and most likely never will be fully recovered, but I am in a place where I’m no longer risking death to lose a few more pounds, and I think that’s a good place to start.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix
brittany kerfoot.jpg

Brittany Kerfoot received a BA in English and an MFA in Creative Writing from George Mason University; she has since worked as a copywriter, technical writer, editor, and freelancer. Her nonfiction work has been featured in Brit + Co, Thrillist, Headspace, The Establishment, and The Fix, among others. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in various online and print literary journals. You can find Brittany on Linkedin and Twitter.