The Fasting Saint & History of Anorexia Nervosa

Woman drinking water

The history of anorexia nervosa and fasting is a fascinating one. It has been traced for hundreds of years across the globe. Most interesting is the history of Saints and anorexia across the span of time.

Current anorexia nervosa (AN) is a mental health disorder that is affecting Westernized society and the world, but it was not always that way. It is the modern idea that emphasizes the thin ideal, weight loss, and a ‘perfect’ body.

Anorexia is characterized by a distorted body image with an intense preoccupation with food, diet, weight loss, and fear of gaining weight even if their weight is already significantly low [1].

How Religious Fasting Differs from Anorexia Nervosa

In historical reviews, anorexia had a much different pattern and view, one of fasting and morbid self-starvation. There has been a long-standing historical view of self-starvation and religious asceticism.

Saint Jerome professed the practice of purification through self-starvation to Roman women [2].

In the middle ages, there is evidence of extreme self-induced fasting that leads to premature deaths, such as Catherina from Siena. Female Saint ideals were often connected to self-starvation with deprivation of food except for the Eucharist.

The practice of starvation and fasting was often described as ‘holy anorexia’ and differs from anorexia nervosa. The ‘holy anorexia’ focuses on spiritual purity instead of an obsessed drive for thinness and overvaluation of body shape and weight.

During the Renaissance era, the religious idea of “holy anorexia” became more associated with patterns of food deprivation. Fasting or starving oneself was often connected with a mix of spiritual and material beliefs.

In 1770, a seminal publication, Phthisologia or a Treatise of Consumptions, was released, and it spoke about nervous atrophy or self-imposed reduction of food intake [2].

Within the last three centuries, food restriction has distanced from religion and is now connected to body image and self-representation. The idea of the female figure evolved into a slender shape and thin appearance.

Woman standing in the snow

Darwin in 1794 reported that the practice of fasting would eventually lead to death. In the late 1800’s, a publication that tried to describe anorexia as a psychiatric disorder or at least a flawed point of view was released.

Gull was one of the first medical physicians to coin the phrase ‘anorexia nervosa’ and separate it from ‘hysteria.’ Anorexia then became a psychogenic disorder and listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder (DSM), DSM-I.

Saints and Anorexia

In early Christianity, abstinence from food was an everyday practice. The human body and sexuality were considered secondary to the will and spirit.

Saint Catherine de Siena was born in Italy. She lived her life ‘virtuously’ where her bodily control was a sign of her devotion to God [3]. At 16, she began to eat only bread, vegetables, and water.

Later she began to vomit after eating (bulimia) and would only eat herbs and water. She died at 33 after giving up water.

200 hundred years later Santa Rosa de Lima saw spirituality as a vow of poverty and emphasized fasting and extreme forms of punishing asceticism.

She fasted three times per week from the age of 11 onward, and at 15 she stopped eating meat and lived only on bread and water. She committed her life to prayer and helping the poor and sick before succumbing to her eating disorder.

Fast forward another 200 years, Elisabeth of Austria-Hungary was Empress of Austria by age 16, and later she became Queen. She was known for being obsessed with maintaining her figure throughout her life and reduced what she ate, eating only meat juices and fruit. She became obsessed with exercise and died at an early age due to her eating patterns.

What has occurred throughout the ages is that fasting and extreme self-punishment was used for the purification of the individual and the glorification of God. It was a way to reach divine communication and practice self-discipline.

Anorexia is now based on a flawed internalized sense of self, an obsession with thinness, and the fear of becoming fat.

Even though the reasons are varied between fasting for spirituality and the mental health disorder that anorexia nervosa has become, the result is the same. Malnutrition, severe physical consequences, and death for far too many.

Is Saint Fasting Similar to Other Disorders?

Woman at the window

When we examine The Fasting Saint & The History of Anorexia Nervosa, it can be a wonder how these individuals restricted and used unhealthy eating patterns as a way to connect to God. When we compare it to Orthorexia, it seems eerily similar in spiritual connection and pureness within the self.

Many individuals who engage in orthorexia use it to purify the body of toxins and often to connect with their higher spiritual power. It leaves one to wonder if these are in fact similar eating disturbances.

Anorexia Nervosa, unlike orthorexia, is a mental health disorder. It is a medical, physical, emotional, and psychological disturbance in individuals who suffer from its control. Being able to seek treatment for anorexia is essential in order to be able to recover.

Getting treatment at a higher level of care, continued therapy, group therapy, and psychiatric and nutritional support is essential in being able to overcome the eating disorder.

Image of Libby Lyons and familyAbout the Author: Libby Lyons is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Certified Eating Disorder Specialist (CEDS). Libby has been practicing in the field of eating disorders, addictions, depression, anxiety and other comorbid issues in various agencies. Libby has previously worked as a contractor for the United States Air Force Domestic Violence Program, Saint Louis University Student Health and Counseling, Saint Louis Behavioral Medicine Institute Eating Disorders Program, and has been in Private Practice.

Libby currently works as a counselor at Fontbonne University and is a Adjunct Professor at Saint Louis University, and is a contributing author for Addiction Hope and Eating Disorder Hope. Libby lives in the St. Louis area with her husband and two daughters. She enjoys spending time with her family, running, and watching movies.


[1] Davis, A. A., & Nguyen, M. (2014). A Case Study of Anorexia Nervosa Driven by Religious Sacrifice. Retrieved December 13, 2017, from
[2] Dell’Osso, L., Abelli, M., Carpita, B., Pini, S., Castellini, G., Carmassi, C., & Ricca, V. (2016). Historical evolution of the concept of anorexia nervosa and relationships with orthorexia nervosa, autism, and obsessive–compulsive spectrum. Retrieved December 13, 2017, from
[3] Behar, R., & Arancibia, M. (2015, May & june). Asceticism and spirituality in anorexia nervosa: A historical psychosocial analysis. Retrieved December 13, 2017, from

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published on February 3, 2018.
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