What Is Weight Loss Obsession and How It Can Impact You

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Weight loss diets are rampant in our society, fueled by the billion-dollar, weight control industry and the pervasive opinion that thinness is more important than health. Many Americans get caught up in counting calories, managing macros, or avoiding certain foods in an effort to shed pounds; but this behavior has some potentially dangerous side effects.

Sometimes, weight loss is a desired side-effect of a healthy lifestyle that includes eating a nutritious, balanced diet and being physically active. But other times, weight loss becomes all-encompassing and obsessive, and can turn into an overwhelming compulsion that may negatively impact day-to-day life.

Signs of Weight Loss Obsession

In our media-saturated world, it’s easy to get caught up in believing that only thin bodies are desirable, even though it’s just not true. While a balanced eating plan paired with physical activity is important for disease prevention, focusing solely on weight loss can become physically and psychologically overwhelming—and potentially harmful.

If you find that you are preoccupied with food in a way that is disrupting your life, it could be a sign of weight obsession. Other possible signs include:

  • Constant monitoring of calories, macros, or overall food intake
  • Frequent weigh-ins or other body measures
  • Anxiety associated with specific foods, such as cutting out carbs or sugar
  • Rigid rules around food and/or exercise
  • Feeling guilty and shameful when eating certain foods
  • A loss of control around food, such as binge eating
  • Using exercise or purging to burn more calories
  • Following fad diets
  • Weight fluctuations or yo-yo dieting

Some people may also become obsessed with only eating foods that they deem to be healthy or high quality, whether that means it’s organic, vegan, non-GMO, or something else. This is recognized as a condition called orthorexia nervosa. Weight loss may ensue as part of orthorexia, even if it wasn’t the primary goal.

Eating Disorder vs. Disordered Eating

An eating disorder is a mental illness that meets the specific criteria defined by the American Psychiatric Association (APA). Examples of eating disorders include anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder. Disordered eating is a descriptive phrase for abnormal eating behavior, but is not a diagnosis. Someone can have disordered eating patterns, but not fit within the current APA eating disorder diagnosis. However, disordered eating still may require treatment as it can turn into a more problematic eating disorder.

Risks of Unrealistic Weight Loss Goals

It’s dangerous to set a weight loss goal based on what a social media influencer, diet commercial, or fad diet book promises is realistic. The diet industry is ripe with false promises and trickery, in an effort to make money.

There’s little science to support most over-hyped plans. In fact, a meta-analysis of obesity treatments showed that more than 80% of weight lost by the study participants was regained after 5 years. The real harm is believing in unrealistic diets, which is setting oneself up for failure and then feeling bad.

Unrealistic weight loss goals can also be harmful for other reasons:

  • Changes may be impossible to maintain in the long term, which leads to yo-yo dieting and feelings of failure.
  • Many strict diets are nutritionally inadequate and may cause vitamin or mineral deficiencies, which can lead to long-term health problems (osteoporosis, heart disease, etc).
  • Strict regimes of under-eating can lead to eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa or binge eating.
  • Not eating enough can also mess with our metabolism, heart, temperature regulation, heart rate, digestion, and hormones, leading to health complications.

How to Change Your Mindset

There are several evidence-based programs that may help you get out of the diet mentality and rebuild your relationship with food. It would be helpful to work with a therapist or registered dietitian who is certified as a Health at Every Size or Intuitive Eating practitioner. They can help you unlearn harmful habits and replace them with healthier goals and ideas.    

Intuitive eating is a non-diet approach that can help you unlearn external rules about what to eat and teaches you to focus on your own hunger cues instead. It was developed by dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, who outline 10 principles to help you build a healthier relationship with food and self-care.

Intuitive eating can help you reject the diet mentality by spotlighting the false promises made by diet culture. It will help remove guilt around eating, learn to exercise for joy instead of for calorie control, and allow you to stop seeing foods as “good” or “bad.”

How to Set Healthy Weight Loss Goals

There are two schools of thought on this, and you’ll need to figure out which works best for you.

One method is to keep weight loss your long-term goal, approaching it in a sustainable way by learning how to eat satisfying, balanced meals and be more active while focusing less on specific numbers. You can work with a practitioner to develop a nutritious meal plan and exercise routine that allows for slow, achievable weight loss.

This includes setting SMART Goals (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-bound) goals that have flexible rather than rigid boundaries. This type of plan involves behavioral goals that may include things such as slight reduction in calories, an increase in physical activity, and other modest changes that are not too disruptive to your lifestyle.

The second method is to reject the diet mentality altogether. Many practitioners are moving away from setting weight loss as a goal since it's often not realistic. Instead, you can make goals about health, wellness, and self-care, regardless of the number on the scale. You can do this by practicing intuitive eating principles. To be clear, intuitive eating is NOT a weight loss diet. It’s a completely different paradigm for people who are ready to let go of weight as their primary goal.

When to Get Outside Help

If your eating habits are consuming your thoughts, interrupting your day-to-day life, or becoming overwhelming, it's a good idea to speak to a healthcare practitioner. A therapist or dietitian who understands disordered eating is a smart first step.

A Word From Verywell

While it may seem "healthy" to count calories or cut out certain foods, these types of habits can become obsessive and disrupt your life. In extreme cases, disordered eating and food obsessions can lead to eating disorders.

A better plan is to skip weight loss as your motivational goal, and practice self-care instead. This may include making peace with food, enjoying nourishing meals while respecting your appetite, and practicing meaningful exercise without trying to burn off the calories you ate. If you need help getting started, reach out to an intuitive eating-certified dietitian or therapist.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can losing weight become an obsession?

    Yes, losing weight can become an obsession. If you are constantly counting calories, restricting foods, or feel guilty about eating certain foods, you may have disordered or obsessive eating habits, which could turn into an eating disorder.

  • How do you know if you are obsessed with your weight?

    If many of your life choices revolve around eating, dieting, or exercise, that’s a red flag that you may be obsessed with weight or have disordered eating habits. Check with your healthcare provider or a therapist to figure out if your habits may be causing you harm. 

  • What is orthorexia?

    Orthorexia nervosa is a term coined by physician Steven Bratman in 1997 to indicate an obsession or fixation on eating healthy foods. Orthorexia describes a pathological obsession with nutrition that may include a restrictive diet, ritualized eating patterns, and avoiding foods believed to be unhealthy or impure. Although prompted by a desire to achieve optimum health, orthorexia may lead to nutritional deficiencies, medical complications, and poor quality of life.

16 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Cara Rosenbloom, RD
 Cara Rosenbloom RD is a dietitian, journalist, book author, and the founder of Words to Eat By, a nutrition communications company in Toronto, ON.

Edited by
Lily Moe
Lily Moe for Verywell Fit

Lily Moe is a former fitness coach and current Editor for Verywell Fit. A wellness enthusiast, she can often be found in a hot yoga studio, trying a new recipe, or going for a long run in Central Park.

Learn about our editorial process