Fast demise: Does religious fasting trigger eating disorder behaviour?

By Sarah McMahon

Today marks the beginning of Ramadan, an Islamic “holy month” where there is a period of fasting observed by millions of individuals of muslim faith around the world. Fasting also occurs periodically in other various religions, such as the Jewish holy day of Yom Kuppur and the Christian season of Lent. The purpose of fasting, irrespective of the specific religion, is usually to enable enhanced spiritual focus and a literal “feasting on God”.

Interestingly religious asceticism and fasting have been long associated. The term “holy anorexia” depicts this well, an example of such being St Catherine, who allegedly survived on spoonful of herbs.

There is no doubt that the relationship between religion and fasting is a complex one, with one study suggesting an interesting connection: for individuals experiencing high levels of eating distress, stronger faith meant more dietary restriction and body image issues; and for individuals experiencing lower levels of eating distress, stronger faith was less commonly associated with dietary restraint and indeed was a protective factor for eating disorder behaviour.

Ultimately research of this nature clearly supports the notion that, for a people susceptible to body image and eating issues, fasting can trigger eating disorder behaviour. Fasting can also disguise eating disorder behaviour.

This means that navigating fasting periods, for individuals who suffer with eating and body image issues, requires careful consideration and perhaps consultation with religious elders, therapists and specific religious reading and/or prayer.

The purpose of fasting in most religions is about refocusing your mind to come closer to your God(s). However most religions agree that you should not fast if you are not well enough to do to so. Although eating issues may seem more “grey” than other health issues, it is important to remember that they are a mental illness and fasting can be very triggering and dangerous.  In these instances it is worth considering the following questions:

  1. Does your religion discourage fasting if you have another serious illness, such as cancer?
  2. Will fasting be more likely to put your mental and physical health at risk?
  3. Will fasting potentially prevent the function that that very observation is intended to perform (ie becoming closer to God)?

If you answer yes to any of these questions,  consider whether there are other ways you can observe the practice of fasting. For example, “fasting” from other  forms of pleasure, such as technology, spending; or engaging in additional reading/ prayer/ church attendances to focus your attention.

The Eating Disorders Foundation of Victoria has an excellent resource on religious fasting for you to consider further.