What Is the Cotton Ball Diet?

A look at the physical and mental dangers of this diet.

Stack of cotton balls

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The cotton ball diet became a fad in the modeling industry and soon spread to the figure skating industry. This “fad diet” involves eating cotton balls soaked in juice or smoothies to make you feel full while simultaneously restricting calories to maintain minimal body weight or to lose weight.

Dipping cotton balls in juice or smoothies helps tricks the palate into thinking you are eating food when you are not consuming anything nutritious whatsoever.

Some individuals stick to just eating cotton all day, while others consume these fillers before a meal, so they can eat less. Individuals are able to swallow as many as five juice-dipped balls in one sitting before they feel completely full.

The “cotton ball diet” is not considered an eating disorder but it is a dangerous type of disordered eating that can be potentially lethal.

What Is Disordered Eating?

Disordered Eating

Disordered eating is a term used to describe numerous ways of unhealthy and abnormal eating patterns that do not fit the specific criteria for an eating disorder.

Disordered eating occurs when an individual consumes food for reasons other than hunger and nourishment. Often, disordered eating occurs as a way to lose weight, hide underlying emotions, or feel like one is in control.

These individuals may avoid major food groups, may skip out on meals, eat non-food items as a way to feel full, or engage in limited binging and purging episodes.

Unfortunately, when these types of unhealthy eating behaviors are not classified as an “eating disorder,” such as bulimia or anorexia, they do not appear to be as dangerous, or they may often be overlooked when they can be very serious and dangerous dietary habits.

Pica

Pica is an abnormal and rare eating disorder that is characterized by the persistent eating of non-food substances that do not give any nutritional value.

In order to be diagnosed with pica, an individual must eat non-food items for at least one month in duration. Common non-food items often seen in pica include:

  • paper
  • soap
  • cloth
  • hair
  • string or wool
  • soil
  • chalk or paint
  • gum
  • metal or pebbles
  • charcoal, ash, or clay
  • starch
  • ice

Most individuals with pica do not have an underlying reason as to why they consume non-food items. Pica is often linked to mental health disorders such as schizophrenia, intellectual disability, and autism spectrum disorder.

Is the Cotton Ball Diet Considered Pica?

There does not seem to be a definitive consensus on this question. Although cotton balls are non-food items and have zero nutritional value, individuals eat them in order to lose weight. Therefore, they have an underlying intention as to why they are consuming these items.

Dangers of the Cotton Ball Diet

Soaking cotton balls in juice and eating them until you are full is not only harmful because you are starving your body of the necessary nutrients and vitamins, but you are putting yourself in medical danger.

Gastrointestinal Issues and Choking Hazards

Your gastrointestinal system starts from your mouth and follows a path that involves your esophagus, your stomach, and your small and large intestines. Cotton balls can easily clog your gastrointestinal system, similar to too much toilet paper clogging a pipe.

As a result, this clog can result in an obstruction, which is often a surgical emergency. Surgery is needed to unclog your gastrointestinal system before it ruptures or before an infection starts. Choking on cotton balls is also a potential danger.

Cotton Balls May Contain Harmful Chemicals

Not all cotton balls are created equal, meaning that many cotton balls are made from bleached polyester rather than natural cotton, and as a result, these toxins can build up over time and become harmful.

Other Effects

Eating cotton balls soaked in juice is not only dangerous but can result in malnutrition, weakened bones, fatigue and can play a major detriment on your emotional and mental health.

Disordered eating is highly linked to mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety.

Many individuals who engage in the cotton ball diet or other disordered eating habits are struggling with low self-esteem, past trauma, control issues, and other underlying triggers that most likely, need to be addressed.

Diet Culture

Unfortunately, we live in a world that glorifies a very specific body type and shames other body types that do not fit into this box. As a result, many individuals do not feel beautiful because they have too many curves or are considered “overweight.”

This body-shaming creates a recipe for a cycle of negative thoughts, bullying, and low self-esteem, resulting in individuals going to extreme lengths to try to lose weight or look a certain way.

The diet and fitness culture glorifies weight loss and skinny bodies when we should be more accepting of and normalize all body types.

Instead of focusing on “good and bad foods” and losing a certain amount of weight, we should be focusing on nourishing our bodies with all different types of food.

The cotton ball diet is dangerous and potentially deadly, but it is a diet nonetheless, and it not only can be physically harmful to our bodies, but it can be mentally harmful as well.

Treatment

Disordered eating, including the cotton ball diet, is often treated in a professional treatment center that focuses on eating disorders and their underlying triggers.

Even though the cotton ball diet is not considered an eating disorder, it is dangerous and usually comes with deep-seated underlying triggers, therapists and dietitians are usually necessary to fully recover and heal from this disordered eating pattern.

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  1. National Eating Disorders Association. Pica.