Fasting and Eating Disorders: A Slippery Slope

Monday, September 28, is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Yom Kippur is considered the most important holiday in the Jewish faith and is typically observed by a day of fasting and religious services.

Every September, as Yom Kippur approaches, I engage in conversations with my Jewish patients and their families about observing this holiday.   Families that are dealing with eating disorders frequently ask me if they, or their child, should fast for Yom Kippur.  I believe strongly that anyone who has an eating disorder, is predisposed to developing an eating disorder, or has a history of an eating disorder, should not fast for any reason.   So my answer, to anyone who falls into these categories, is a resounding NO!

Individuals with illnesses, including those with active eating disorders, are exempted, by Jewish law, from fasting. But what about those who have recovered from eating disorders, or those who are predisposed to eating disorders but have not (yet) developed a full-blown illness? Fasting poses a grave but hidden risk to these individuals as well.

Here’s why: most eating disorders are triggered by a negative energy balance, which is a period of time in which a person is consuming fewer calories than they are expending.  People who are not predisposed to eating disorders may feel uncomfortable, weak, tired, or “hangry” while fasting, will overindulge in food to break the fast, and then will promptly return to their normal eating habits. 

For people who have a genetic predisposition towards eating disorders, regardless of whether the eating disorder is currently active, a negative energy balance often takes a more sinister turn.  These individuals often feel better when they are fasting, and fasting very quickly becomes a self-perpetuating cycle.  The less they eat, the less they want to eat, until it gets to the point that they are not able to bring themselves to eat at all without significant external support.

In our culture, most eating disorders are initially triggered by an intentional negative energy balance such as dieting or a conscious attempt to “eat healthy” (which, sadly, is often a euphemism for dieting).  But some eating disorders, especially in preadolescents and males, are initially triggered by an unintentional energy deficit through illness, dental procedures, athletic training, growth spurts, stress, depression, or religious fasting.  Many people who recover from eating disorders will wisely avoid dieting, but experience relapses nonetheless through unintentional negative energy balances.

People who fast for religious reasons may have no intention of altering their body weight or shape, and may be truly devoted to observing their faith.  But the body doesn’t know the difference.  It simply registers that a negative energy balance is occurring and responds as it is genetically programmed to do.  Once the switch is flipped by a period of negative energy balance, the eating disorder may be set in motion by a cascade of disordered thoughts and behaviors accompanied by increasing difficulty eating.

Some individuals in the Jewish community who have recovered from eating disorders eschew fasting on Yom Kippur and have found other meaningful ways to observe the holiday. For those who are predisposed to eating disorders but want to observe Yom Kippur, I often recommend a different type of fast.  Perhaps a technology fast, such as going 24 hours without a smartphone or without social media.  These types of fasts still convey a sense of deprivation, but without the dangerous possibility of triggering an eating disorder relapse.  In fact, many people find that going without their phone or their social media for a day allows them to be more fully present in the moment and dramatically reduces their stress levels.