When Eating Disorders Get Rebranded
Fasting is nothing new, after all, people have been fasting for religious reasons for centuries. However, more recently, more people have been extolling the virtues of fasting diets as a way of detoxing their bodies or losing weight.
Countless books and websites have sprung up surrounding the idea of fasting for weight loss. If you’ve heard of Intermittent Fasting or the 5:2 Diet, you’ll already be aware that the people who are fans of this way of eating claim that they are extremely effective at helping them to maintain the figure they desire.
Yet for those with eating disorders, fasting diets can be extremely dangerous. In fact, it has even been suggested that fasting is simply a rebranded form of eating disorders. So, are fasting diets safe, or should they be avoided?
What Is Intermittent Fasting?
There are several types of fasting diet which have become fashionable in recent times. All claim to help those who follow them lose weight and all can prove to be dangerous for those who suffer from eating disorders.
Some of the most common forms of Intermittent Fasting include:
- The 16/8 diet – this involves having an “eating window” of around 8 to 10 hours per day and fasting for the remainder of the 24 hours. In that eating window, it’s possible to fit in either two or three meals. Sometimes called the “Leangains Protocol”, this way of eating was popularized by Martin Berkhan, a fitness expert. This is a relatively simple way of fasting since it usually only involves skipping breakfast and avoiding snacking after dinner time. Outside the eating window, only coffee, water and non-caloric beverages can be consumed and during the eating window, mostly healthy food should be consumed.
- The 5:2 diet – this way of eating, popularized by Michael Mosley, a British doctor and journalist, involves eating a normal diet for five days and then restricting calorie intake on 2 days to around 500 calories a day.
- this diet involves fasting for 24 hours once or twice weekly. Popularized by Brad Pilon, a fitness expert, this way of eating means that you fast from a specific time on one day to the same time on the next with only non-caloric beverages like coffee and water allowed during that period with no solid food permitted.
- there are multiple versions of this type of diet. Some involve a complete 24 hour fast every alternate day, while others permit a 500 calorie intake every alternate day.
- The Warrior Diet – popularized by Ori Hofmekler, a fitness expert, this way of eating involves eating only a small amount of vegetables and raw fruit in the day time then eating a large meal in the evening within a four-hour eating window. During the eating window, those following this diet should focus on unprocessed whole foods similar to those eaten on the paleo diet.
- this is an unstructured way of fasting which involves skipping meals occasionally whenever you’re too busy to eat or simply don’t feel very hungry.
While some of these diets are considerably more extreme than others, they all represent a threat to those with eating disorders due to their excessive focus on food and restricting intake.
Who Shouldn’t Do A Fasting Diet?
Despite the popularity of intermittent fasting diets, experts advise that those with eating disorders should steer clear of this way of eating. Doctors and nutritional therapists strongly suggest that anyone considering embarking on one of these diets should check whether the program is right for their metabolism, lifestyle and body.
An increasing number of researchers are now calling for more studies to be carried out into the effect of fasting on the human body and its potential negative repercussions. It has been suggested that fasting on alternate days could have some damaging side-effects by impairing the action of insulin, the hormone which regulates blood sugar. This could end up increasing the risk of developing diabetes as well as other health issues, even in those with no previous problems.
Health practitioners also state that certain people should never fast at all, regardless of which fasting diet they choose. Children, diabetics, pregnant women or breastfeeding moms should all avoid fasting diets as well as anyone with eating disorders.
Doctors are also concerned that intermittent fasting diets encourage people to overeat on non-fasting days. This could cause hormones to be thrown into turmoil and the body’s metabolism to be thrown off. For women who suffer from PMS, intermittent fasting can make their symptoms worse, with more food cravings and moodiness as well as a greater chance of causing irregular cycles.
People who have adrenal issues should also avoid intermittent fasting since it pushes the adrenal glands too hard making sufferers hypoglycemic, irritable and light-headed. Anyone with chronic stress and mental health disorders may also find that intermittent fasting is a bad idea since the adrenal glands pump out the stress hormone, cortisol, and this causes blood sugar levels to fluctuate wildly causing symptoms.
While people with eating disorders are advised not to consider an intermittent fasting lifestyle, those who are at risk of developing one should also take care. Anyone with a family history of eating disorders or who already displays signs of disordered eating patterns should also seriously considered whether intermittent fasting is a good idea. Even those with no history of disordered eating can end up suffering from problems once they start a diet plan that involves an excessive focus on restricting eating.
The Dangers Of Fasting
A TV program on the BBC in the UK called “Eat, Fast and Live Longer” reveals in very clear detail just how fasting diets can be dangerous, even to those with no former history of eating disorders.
The subject of the program, Michael Mosley, embarked on a 3 ½ day fast during which he only consumed black tea, water and a single 50-calorie soup per day. As the documentary follows his progress through the days, it becomes painfully clear how the process has striking similarities to the descent into an eating disorder.
In such a short period of time, he begins to feel guilty when he eats, and even, more worryingly, when he was only eating in a dream. He experiences social exclusion by being unable to eat when others around him are enjoying a meal. He even puts on a false breezy attitude insisting that he doesn’t feel hungry when he hasn’t eaten for hours. The negative impact of his fast on in cognitive and motor performance, his mood and sleep patterns are also documented in extreme detail. The result is a documentary which almost seeks to make eating disorders acceptable and even normal. By putting out there the idea that it’s ok to starve yourself and to overlook the negative impact that it’s having on your body, the more dangerous this type of fasting is for everyone, and especially those with a tendency to have disordered eating patterns.
The tips which are put forward by proponents of fasting diets are also extremely dangerous for those who are at risk of developing eating disorders. The advice is to draw clear lines between the body and the mind. The hunger experienced while fasting and the instinct to eat is on one side of the line and the diet doctrine forbidding eat lies on the other. Yet, this is the dynamic which lies at the heart of every restrictive eating disorder. Even more worryingly, there is evidence to show that fasting could act as an especially dangerous trigger for eating disorders among women who are more vulnerable to developing anorexia when following this type of diet due to its cognitive-physiological accompaniments.
Fasting diets, by their nature, involve yo-yoing between two extremes – self-indulgence and self-denial. This is something which is commonly seen in eating disorders like anorexia. It’s no wonder, then, that so many people who embark on this way of eating find that they develop ongoing problems that cause problems in other areas of their lives, from their social life to their health and well-being.
Why Does Intermittent Fasting Cause Eating Disorders?
There are many characteristics associated with intermittent fasting that lead to disordered eating patterns and unhealthy relationships with food. Some include:
- The unsustainable approach – the main problem for many people is that it is hard to maintain in the long term. Skipping meals and straying for regular meal times can be hard to cope with over an extended period of time. Not only that, it can create tension within social situations which have been scheduled during fasting periods. As this progresses, an increasingly unhealthily relationship with eating and food can develop.
- The unhealthy focus – with a fasting diet, the focus isn’t on eating. While most diets reduce calorie intake by switching foods which are dense in calories with nutrient-dense low calorie alternatives, fasting diets minimized intake of calories by simply not eating. The more often you fast, the easier it becomes to ignore the signals that your body gives you to tell you that you’re hungry and need to eat. Once you start associating not eating with losing weight, it’s all-too-easy to become afraid of food. When you starve yourself, your brain starts to reward you and anxiety can begin to develop around meal times. It’s hard to balance the concept of eating healthily for nourishment with the concept of fasting for weight loss.
- The bad habits – some fasting diets actually encourage those who follow their eating plans to eat anything they want in their eating window. Although planning off-diet meals are able to offer dieters with a mental break, having this freedom can set you up for failure. Going from starving yourself to over-eating and having high-calorie meals is simply mirroring the behavior associated with eating disorders. Replacing foods which have good nutritional value with fast food and junk is an unhealthy pattern which could take many years to put right.
What Are The Warning Signs To Look Out For?
If you’re worried that you may be developing an eating disorder after commencing an intermittent fasting diet, you’ll need to be aware of the signs to look out for. Here are some of the most common indicators that your dieting is straying into the territory of disordered eating:
- You are beginning to feel anxious about food
- You feel extremely fatigued
- You’re experiencing mood swings, hormonal difficulties or difficulties in sleeping
If you notice any of these symptoms developing, you should stop your eating plan and seek help from a nutritionist.
Is Fasting Actually Safe?
For some people who are in good health, embarking on a fast for a couple of days probably won’t cause any harm so long as they take steps to avoid becoming hydrated. However, there’s no question that fasting for extended periods is no good for either your physical or mental well-being.
The human body requires minerals and vitamins from food in order to keep healthy. Without sufficient of these nutrients, symptoms begin to appear like dizziness, fatigue, dehydration, and constipation. If you fast for too long, it could even be life-threatening.
For those with physical health conditions like diabetes, fasting is extremely dangerous since it leads to spikes and dips in blood sugar levels. Children, pregnant women, the elderly and those who are breastfeeding should also steer clear because of the harm to their health that can follow this way of eating.
The evidence is clear that, although some people are fans of fasting diets, the truth is that for many followers, they are simply rebranded eating disorders and this is bad news for anyone with a tendency towards disordered eating. The risks of falling into dangerous eating patterns and of developing an unhealthy attitude towards food are very high indeed. Therefore, if you’re considering trying out an intermittent fasting diet, it makes sense to consult your doctor or dietician first to determine whether it’s a good choice for you and, if so, how to eat this way safely.
If you’re looking for eating disorder treatment at an outpatient facility, look no further than The Meadowglade. We’re a facility with a solid reputation for treating eating disorders and helping people develop healthy coping mechanisms and better relationships with food.