Intermittent Fasting & Eating Disorders
Fad diets are becoming increasingly popular these days as the nation’s obesity crisis takes hold. It seems that almost every week an “expert” introduces a new way of eating that promises impressive weight loss. One of those recent dieting fads is intermittent fasting. While this lifestyle change has been recommended as a great way of shedding the pounds, there are now concerns in medical circles that it could lead to eating disorders.
What Is Intermittent Fasting?
Intermittent fasting is a way of eating which has recently become extremely popular. Sometimes known as IF, this diet is characterized by set periods of fasting followed by specified eating periods. The method varies between dieters. Some diets demand that those following it refrain from eating for a number of hours, while others place limits on the number of calories consumed within certain periods. Whichever variation on intermittent fasting is used, all share some characteristics which could trigger patterns of disordered eating and the development of eating disorders.
Essentially, intermittent fasting involves an alternating cycle of eating and fasting to boost metabolic health, improve weight loss and guard against disease. One of the features that sets IF apart from other types of diet is that there are no foods that are forbidden. The only restrictions are placed on when those foods are consumed.
All intermittent fasting methods divide the week or day into fasting and eating periods. Some methods are as simple as extending the night’s fast for longer by missing out breakfast, eating lunch at around noon then having a final meal around 8 pm. This means that you technically fast for 16 hours per day, with your eating being restricted to an eight-hour window. This is called the 16/8 method and is the most common method of intermittent fasting. During the fast period, no food can be eaten, but tea, coffee, water, and non-caloric beverages can be consumed. Other commonly seen intermittent fasting eating regimes include the 12:12 method, where you fast for 12 hours then can eat whatever you like over the next 12 hours, and the 5:2 method which involves eating under 500 calories for two days per week.
Why Is Intermittent Fasting So Popular?
Intermittent Fasting has gained enormous popularity because it is purported to resemble the natural eating patterns of our ancestors. For centuries, humans have been fasting, either because there was no available food or for religious purposes. Fasting is a very natural thing, and the human body is well-equipped to cope with periods without eating.
There are a number of processes that take place inside the body if we avoid food for some time. Genes, hormones and the processes of cellular repair are all affected. Insulin and blood sugar levels drop while HGH (Human Growth Hormone) levels rise dramatically. This causes more fat to be burned while calorie intake is effectively restricted. As a result, those who follow this way of eating tend to lose weight.
There is even some evidence to show it may protect against certain diseases such as cancer, type II diabetes and heart disease.
The Various Forms Of Intermittent Fasting
A number of intermittent fasting methods have evolved over the last few years, with some proving more popular than others. The top three in use today include:
- 16:8 – this involves fasting for 16 hours then eating for 8 hours
- Eat-Stop-Eat – a couple of times weekly, you have a 24-hour fast
- 5:2 – this involves eating only 500 calories on two days per week
There are, however, a number of other intermittent fasting methods which are even more extreme. Some involve not eating for longer periods such as several days. It’s easy to see how eating in this way could lead to eating disorders.
When Does Intermittent Fasting Become An Eating Disorder?
It is generally advised that anyone who wants to try Intermittent Fasting should only do so with their doctor or dietician’s supervision. However, any way of eating which encourages restrictive eating patterns should only be approached cautiously in the first place. This is because intermittent fasting naturally forces you to think about food more intensively and to develop behaviors with food at their center. You may start to plan your social life around your eating schedule, for example, and this can lead to a raft of problems. This is especially likely to be the case for those who already have a propensity to mental health issues or to the development of disordered eating patterns.
Intermittent Fasting, by its nature, encourages food to take up a larger space inside the dieter’s head. It interferes with spontaneity and socialization and can lead to distress if the fast cannot be followed as planned. Some people who embark on Intermittent Fasting find that they begin to use their fasting as a way of coping with depression, stress, and anxiety which, in turn, tips the scales over into eating disorder territory.
Does Fasting Trigger Eating Disorder?
Many people can diet for long periods without ever developing eating disorders. However, other people have a greater susceptibility to disordered eating. People who already have a genetic predisposition, an existing mental health disorder or challenging home lift have a greater risk of developing an eating disorder if they embark on a strict Intermittent Fasting lifestyle.
The Features Of IF Which Lead To Unhealthy Relationships With Food
There are a number of features associated with Intermittent Fasting which can lead to the development of an unhealthy relationship with food. For most people, the main issue is that it’s impossible to maintain an intermittent fasting lifestyle in the long-term. Very few people are happy to forgo eating for extended periods of time for the rest of their life or to change their standard mealtimes to those outside the norm.
Intermittent Fasting often leads to difficult social situations, especially when events, meetings or other occasions occur during a fasting period. This is something that becomes unsustainable over time since it limits your lifestyle too much. Those who are determined to adhere to their fasting regime, whatever the circumstances, are rapidly moving towards a very unhealthy relationship with their food.
This way of eating also places a very unhealthy focus on food and eating patterns. Unlike other diets that lower your intake of calories by changing the foods that you eat from those that are packed with calories to nutrient-dense, low-calorie alternatives, Intermittent Fasting solely minimizes your intake of calories by preventing you from eating for specified periods of time. By fasting, you learn to ignore the signals your body naturally gives you to tell you that you’re hungry and need to eat.
Once you start to link avoiding food to weight loss, developing a fear about eating and food as a whole becomes relatively easy. Your brain begins to reward you when you starve yourself. It’s only a short step from this to feeling anxious about mealtimes and it becomes harder to balance the idea of eating to nourish yourself with the concept of fasting for weight loss. This way of thinking leads to eating disorders in the long-run.
Some Intermittent Fasting regimes actively encourage those who follow this way of eating to consume anything they like during their periods of eating. This can be dangerous territory too. Although you can achieve a good mental break by having the odd planned off-diet meal, giving yourself complete freedom to binge on any kind of junk food that you crave is only setting yourself up for future failure.
If you flip-flop between starving yourself and bingeing on high-calorie foods, this mimics the behavior patterns seen in those with eating disorders. If you replace nutritious meals with fatty and sugary foods, you could be developing an eating pattern which does more harm and than good and can take a very long time to correct.
What Are The Signs Of Intermittent Fasting Becoming An Eating Disorder?
If you’re concerned about a friend or family member who has started Intermittent Fasting, it’s important to be aware of the signs that intermittent fasting has gone too far.
Behavioral changes are often the first sign that there is a problem. Someone who becomes even more rigid in their approach to dieting and fasting may be on the way to developing an eating disorder. They may become more isolated from others, distancing themselves from social events, especially those which involve food, because they are worried about adhering to their diet regime.
They may also become more perfectionist and obsessive, talking incessantly about food, weight, and their diet, and becoming more concerned about their appearance, finding fault continuously with the way that they (or others) look.
There are other signs to be aware of too. Obviously, dramatic weight loss is a clear indicator of a problem. However, depression and mood swings could be another symptom to look for as well as a lack of focus or energy and even changes in their skin, nails, hair or digestive patterns.
What about if you’re worried about yourself? Have you started an Intermittent Fasting lifestyle and now have concerns that you’re developing unhealthy eating patterns and obsessive thoughts? If you are displaying any of these signs, it could be time to get some help:
- Do you feel anxious about eating and food?
- Are you extremely tired all the time?
- Are you experiencing hormonal problems?
If the answer to these questions is yes, your intermittent fasting could be straying into the territory of disordered eating patterns. Intermittent Fasting may help you to lose weight, but many people suffer from this way of eating. Any diet which is stressing you out and causing you problems in your life is doing more harm than good. If you recognize these signs in yourself, you should consider talking to your doctor or dietician about a better way of eating for you which is healthier and safer.
Are Any Forms Of Fasting Actually Safe?
It can be difficult to determine at the moment whether any form of fasting can actually be safe. Experts differ in their opinions. Some believe that it is possible to intermittently fast so long as a proper approach is taken with professional medical supervision, support, and advice. In fact, some experts believe that intermittent fasting can offer a host of benefits including improved energy levels and disease prevention. However, others think that the potential dangers and risks are simply too great to make the potential benefits worth it.
Since it’s surprisingly easy to mask eating disorders under the label of intermittent fasting, it’s perhaps a way of eating that is best avoided, especially by those who have a natural propensity to develop disordered ways of eating.
For those who are keen to try Intermittent Fasting as a way of promoting weight loss and reaping the potential benefits, it is advised that only the less extreme methods are adopted. Those methods which involve several consecutive days of fasting, for example, should be avoided as nutritional deficiencies can develop and the chances of developing eating disorders are much higher with this way of eating.
If you’re concerned your way of eating signals the development of an eating disorder, you should definitely take steps to address the problem as quickly as possible. The sooner that you seek help with your eating disorder, you’ll be able to recover more quickly and enjoy a better overall outcome.
Getting Help For Eating Disorders
Although Intermittent Fasting holds a lot of potential for health benefits and weight loss, it’s certainly not something that should be tried by anyone who has a natural predisposition to developing eating disorders. It’s also a way of eating which should be supervised by a qualified dietician or medical practitioner. If you launch into this form of dieting without the right advice and support, the chances of developing disordered eating patterns are high due to the undue focus which is placed on avoiding food in this diet regime.
If you’re a fan of intermittent fasting that’s worried that they’ve developed an eating disorder, you have options. The Meadowglade, a private facility in Southern California, can help you heal. Contact us today to learn more about how we can help you on the road to recovery and put intermittent fasting in your past!