Many religions and spiritual traditions host a variety of dietary restrictions, ranging from fasting rituals to prohibitions of certain foods/food groups. The purpose of these restrictions often revolve around achieving a higher spiritual state and building connection with a higher power(s). Can these religious duties cause an eating disorder or intensify an existing one? The short answer is: it’s complicated.
The long answer? The lines are quite blurry. While it is true that folks who have had strict relationships with their religion may find themselves having harmful relationships with food and with their bodies, it is not always the case. On top of that, not everyone with an eating disorder grew up being told that they had to give up or control their food intake for a higher power(s). But the correlation is certainly there. Any type of restriction--whether religious or not--puts people at risk for developing disordered eating patterns, which may or may not evolve into a full-fledged eating disorder.
Fasting requires one to ignore the evolution-necessitated hunger cues our bodies provide us. Think of it like a communication method. When you’re hungry, your stomach sends you a message-similar to getting a text. A lot of people are able to see the text notification. But sometimes it can be a struggle to actually open and respond to the message, especially if the message might be something you aren’t in the headspace to read. If you are someone that has lots of unread messages in your phone, you know how easy it is to not notice new messages when you’ve already got 107 unread texts.
The long term effects of this have a potential to cause harm, especially for those who already have a predisposition for disordered eating. Noticing and responding to our hunger cues is essential to being able to nourish ourselves. When you’ve struggled with this in the past, fasting can add to the confusion of understanding and listening to your body’s needs.
If you are finding that you’re not sure why you are fasting (or restricting yourself from a certain food group), this can be a painful thought to have. Know that these thoughts are natural and by no means say anything about your spirituality. You can still be a very spiritual and pious person with the presence of these thoughts.
However, it can be helpful in the longrun to take a break from fasting if our bodies and minds are still in the process of recovering from an eating disorder. How do you know if you should take a break? There’s no right answer to this--life is all about trial and error in learning what truly works for you at any given moment. But here’s a place to start in order to understand yourself better:
Communicate your wish to fast with a qualified dietitian, therapist, and/or doctor. A professional can assess your medical and emotional health to help you determine whether or not your body and mind can sustain a fast. They’ll likely want to make sure your vitals are healthy and your coping skills are in place just in case you experience triggers during the fast.
Layer your intentions
Compassionately acknowledge that most human motives are layered and multi-faceted. It can help to grab a piece of paper and write down all the different reasons you think you might enjoy fasting.
Once you have your list of intentions, figure out what percentage of your fasting is attributed to which purpose. Sit yourself down and work through each intention. For example, your intention list might include: Getting closer to God, feeling a sense of community with other fasters, losing weight, gaining control of your appetite, etc. This is where speaking to a professional, like a counselor, can be helpful.
Here’s where it can be important to be honest with yourself. If your intentions end up sounding similar to some of your ED-related thoughts, or if you’re having trouble clarifying your intentions, there is no shame in taking a break from fasting until some of the confusion clears away.
If you’ve been cleared to fast by professionals but still feel unsure, remember that there doesn’t have to be any absolutes. You can try it for a half a day or even a few hours and keep track of any triggering situations and resulting thoughts, sensations, or emotions. If you’re noticing that you’re having a hard time coping with these triggers, that may be a good litmus test to take a step back.
If you’re still unsure about it, again there is no harm in taking a break from fasting until you’re in a better place mentally,spiritually, and physically. Give yourself time. Just because it may not be the best for your health to fast this time around, doesn’t mean you’ll never be able to fast again. Focus on the needs of your body in the here and now.
Lastly, ask yourself if you’re willing to let others into your healing journey. Do you have friends, family, mentors, doctors, therapists, dietitians, or other support people in your life that you can ask to help you? If you’re not sure that you can use the support around you should the need arise, that may also be an indicator to gently give yourself permission to take a step back from fasting.
Remind yourself that there are endless ways of engaging in worship. If you aren’t able to fast this time around, know that you can return to this activity in the future when your body is ready for it. In the meantime, return to your faith and what it teaches you about the basics of your spirituality. What other ways can you meaningfully grow your soul and connect with your purpose? Some ideas may be: prayer, charity, meditation, working on your character, building supportive relationships with your loved ones, etc.
Furthermore, do not underestimate the power of refraining from engaging in routine worship for the betterment of your soul. Yes, you read that right. Even though fasting can be a sacred act of worship in many customs, staying away from fasting for the sake of improving your health is also an act of worship. How does that work? Anything you do to heal your mind and body automatically improves the condition of your soul. A soul that is healing itself is moving towards its higher purpose by default, and this may be the most important thing you can do for yourself. Every soul’s journey on Earth looks different. Avoid comparing yourself to others and surround yourself with a community that understands and nurtures you.
If you would like more help with understanding your eating or your eating disorder, call or text (512)655-3878 or contact us using the tab on our site.