Contributor: Staff at Carolina House
Eating nothing for days on end may sound counterintuitive, but many people do just that in the name of better health. Known as intermittent fasting, this approach to eating has its advocates and detractors, with some asking whether this method can lead to unhealthy eating behaviors or the development of an eating disorder.
What Is Intermittent Fasting?
When a person engages in intermittent fasting, they abstain from eating — or they fast — for scheduled periods, with the goal of losing weight or preventing certain illnesses.
While there are different ways to approach intermittent fasting, Johns Hopkins Medicine says that each method involves choosing when to eat and fast. Examples include the 16/8 method, or eating for eight hours and fasting for 16, and the 5:2 approach, or eating five days a week and then only having one 500- to 600-calorie meal the other two days .
Fasting does not mean that a person consumes nothing, however. Hydration is crucial, so you can drink water and zero-calorie beverages such as tea and coffee during fasting periods. When it is time to eat again, the idea is to make nutritious food choices and not overeat to compensate for the food you did not eat while fasting.
The concept of intermittent fasting stems from prehistoric times when humans could survive for long periods without eating, and they used a lot of energy to hunt and gather food. Today, we have far fewer opportunities to move and be active.
Experts say that the benefits of intermittent fasting come from counteracting today’s cycle of eating more and moving less. For some people, this can help with weight loss or may improve their blood pressure or resting heart rate .
“Intermittent fasting contrasts with the normal eating pattern for most Americans, who eat throughout their waking hours,” Mark Mattson, neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins Hospital, said in a blog post. “If someone is eating three meals a day, plus snacks, and they’re not exercising, then every time they eat, they’re running on those calories and not burning their fat stores” .
Is Fasting an Unhealthy Behavior?
Some experts say that intermittent fasting by definition is an unhealthy eating behavior because it involves restricting how much you eat, skipping meals, and being rigid about how you eat food [2, 3].
“If you’re narrowing the timeframe in which you’re allowed to eat and completely ignoring your hunger cues outside of that timeframe, it could be an unsafe approach, especially for those in eating disorder recovery,” Samantha DeCaro, Psy.D., assistant clinical director at The Renfrew Center of Philadelphia, told Livestrong .
And what many people don’t realize when starting an intermittent fasting schedule is that it can also take time for their body to adjust, so the urge to overeat at the end of a fasting period can be tough to overcome. If a person gets stuck in a cycle of fasting and overeating, this can lead to a condition known as binge-eating disorder.
This is a serious condition that can make you feel like you don’t have any control of how much you eat. People who struggle with binge-eating disorder often eat when they aren’t hungry or continue to eat even if they feel uncomfortably full. After they finish eating, they are typically overwhelmed with guilt, shame, or disgust .
Without the help of professionals, regaining control of how, when, and why you eat can be challenging once you have developed a condition such as binge-eating disorder.
When Is Fasting a Symptom of Something More?
Does that mean that intermittent fasting causes eating disorders? Not necessarily. But there are certain signs that a person’s fasting has transitioned to more than just a way to be more health-conscious. These may include :
- Using this approach to severely restrict calories
- Seeing this method as an excuse to skip meals
- Feeling guilty or ashamed if you break a fast early
- Feeling like a failure if you eat during a fasting period
- Having feelings of shame or guilt after eating
- Feeling deeply afraid of gaining weight
If you notice any of these signs while doing intermittent fasting, reach out to a professional for help as soon as possible.
When starting any new eating plan, it is important to check with your healthcare provider to make sure that you do not have any underlying health concerns to consider, including a history of an eating disorder.
It is also important to check in with yourself about why you want to try intermittent fasting and how you would feel if you ate during a fasting period. Understanding your intent and feelings behind trying intermittent fasting is crucial to your long-term health and well-being.
Everyone responds to intermittent fasting differently, but knowing how to recognize whether this approach has progressed to an eating disorder can make a lifesaving difference.
References Johns Hopkins Medicine. (2021). Intermittent fasting: What is it, and how does it work? https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/intermittent-fasting-what-is-it-and-how-does-it-work.  National Eating Disorders Association. (2021). Warning signs and symptoms. https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/warning-signs-and-symptoms.  Lawler, M. (2019, October 3). When does intermittent fasting become disordered eating? Livestrong. https://www.livestrong.com/article/13721604-intermittent-fasting-eating-disorder/.  Mayo Clinic. (2021). Binge-eating disorder. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/binge-eating-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20353627
About Carolina House
Carolina House is an eating disorder treatment center that serves people age 17 and older of all genders. Within our residential and outpatient programs, we offer a range of services, such as LGBTQ- and male-inclusive programming, to help individuals who are struggling with eating disorders and co-occurring mental health conditions. Our treatment connects individuals with the care they need to achieve long-term recovery from eating disorders and other mental health concerns.
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 a 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 July 19, 2021. Published on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved on July 19, 2021, by Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC