Can Intermittent Fasting Lead to an Eating Disorder?
Several months ago, I was co-leading a presentation on eating disorders at the National Wellness Conference, and my lunchtime companion was a personal trainer who was leading a session on intermittent fasting. Upon learning this, I (inwardly) groaned. I thought we were in for a conversation that would give us both indigestion.
All the things I’d read about intermittent fasting like the incredible health claims, lifestyle of devotees, and strict guidelines, all seemed to be at odds with preventing eating disorders.
I wondered, is intermittent fasting a friend or a foe?
Evaluating your fasting views and your practice
First, remember that most of us already fast. If we don’t eat any food between bedtime and breakfast (break-fast), we are partaking in a daily 6-10 hour fast. There isn’t anything new or groundbreaking about fasting for roughly a third of our day. In this way, intermittent fasting is a friend, something we do naturally. Our bodies seem to have survived and even thrived under these conditions. There are also periods of intermittent fasting in some religions to honor holidays and traditions.
Some intermittent fasters refrain from eating for 16 of every 24 hours making the eating window 8 hours long or the length of an average workday. This could mean eating all three meals and any snacks between the hours of 9 am and 5 pm. Some individuals fast for longer periods of time on certain days hence the term “intermittent.”
Most people, though, have a wider window in which they eat – often 10 to 12 hours. Many feel that a shorter window leaves them feeling hungry or lacking energy, and they have to force themselves to push through. This circumstance, and the potential for it to breed a binge cycle, places it dangerously close to being a diet.
This should be considered a foe.
Dangers of a longer fasting window
Proponents of fasting, including my lunch date, report valuable health benefits resulting from this regimen including lowered blood pressure and increased overall heart health. They also point out that animal studies have resulted in improvements in mental acuity and a decrease in the risk for Type 2 Diabetes.
While this may earn intermittent fasting friend points, it’s important to note that any decrease in snacking on calorie-dense/low-nutrient food likely results in some positive health gains, regardless of the number of hours in a person’s eating window. Fasting for an extreme amount of time isn’t necessary to improve your health.
A recent New England Journal of Medicine study found that intermittent fasting did not actually lead to any more weight loss for obese people than daily calorie caps. Furthermore, the long-term efficacy and safety of time-restricted eating for weight loss are not clear based on the study’s findings.
Our bodies work best when they are adequately fueled with nutritious food, and fasting can interrupt this process. Furthermore, any type of fasting presents a problem for any individual who is or has struggled with an eating disorder.
A dedication to inflexible rules, even rules of timing, can prevent a person from developing or maintaining a healthy relationship with food and their bodies. Fasting, at its core, requires that we ignore hunger cues which can increase obsessive thoughts, binging behavior, and food preoccupation.
A self-test for whether intermittent fasting is a friend or foe
Is your desire to try intermittent fasting rooted in seeking dramatic change?
Is your goal to dramatically change your body’s weight, shape, or performance?
If your answer is a yes, it is probably best that you avoid intermittent fasting. Wanting quick results by following rules isn’t necessarily bad, but it can be quite dangerous. Fasting can quickly toss you into diet culture when done in the extreme, and this will likely harm your health and wellbeing over the long term.
There is much more potential risk than there is potential reward with intermittent fasting.
You would be better served by keeping your focus on eating nutritionally-balanced, regularly-timed meals.
At Walden, we know finding care can be tough. That’s why we are here for you. If you are concerned that you, or a loved one, may have an eating disorder, please reach out by completing the form on this page or email us at email@example.com.
Stephanie Haines, M.Ed., CHES (she/her/hers) has been providing school communities with specialized addiction prevention education since 1999 and has taught students of all ages in most U.S. states and more than 25 countries across five continents. After completing her graduate work at Plymouth State University’s Eating Disorders Institute in 2013, Stephanie joined Walden Behavioral Care as their Prevention Education Specialist, creating an eating disorders prevention curriculum designed for use in school communities. Stephanie takes great joy in raising awareness about the prevention and treatment of eating disorders and substance use disorders as a private consultant, and helping families get the care and support they need and deserve as a member of the Walden team.
*This blog post does not necessarily represent the views of Walden Behavioral Care and its management. The Walden Blog is meant to represent a broad variety of opinions relating to eating disorders and their treatment