Intermittent Fasting & Eating Disorders: An Unpopular Opinion or Just Under-Voiced?

I cried during most of the Wonder Woman movie. And it wasn't a discreet cry, either. It was a full-blown ugly tear-fest. I simultaneously shoved my face with popcorn I pilfered from my kid and convulsed with sobs. This, if you can picture it in your mind, this is what the aftermath of a life with an eating disorder looks like. For me, at least.  

I sat there crying, not because of any tragic plot twist, but because Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman devastated me. She’s beautiful and strong and empowering for women as a whole, yes, but I'd been hoping for something else. Something more. I'd been hoping that when they cast Wonder Woman, they would have cast a different kind of strong and beautiful—the kind I'd seen in the comic books I'd snuck from my brother's room as a kid. Fuller-bodied and classically Amazon: thick thighs. Full backside. Muscular shoulders and arms. Despite the fact I have not binged and purged or starved myself for almost nine years now, and despite the fact that it seems my teeth have finally ceased to chip thanks to the daily stomach acid baths, in that moment in that theatre I could remember exactly what it felt like to want to do anything to not be me. Staring at Gal, I remembered what it was like to want to disappear because, according to every single image of beauty I saw, I was not it. I wasn't crying, however, because I felt this anymore. I was crying for the girls and women who still do; heart-broken for them. Furious that mainstream cinema still can't seem to wrap its head around more inclusive casting. 

But that's another story.

What I am trying to talk about today is relative empowerment, specifically as it pertains to lifestyle choices and mental health issues. Even more specifically as it applies to eating disorders and intermittent fasting. Since the Fast & Furiously Fit Challenge on Sweatflix and the Fast & Furiously Fit ebook were launched earlier this year, I have seen many people comment that intermittent fasting at best not advisable and at worst absolutely detrimental to people with or recovering from eating disorders.

The ebook! You can get it for 30% off using promo code FASTED30.

For those of you I haven't got to chat with in the Insiders Group or on other social platforms, I'm Hollay— BodyRock's Content Manager, and before this, a personal trainer and nutrition specialist. I am also an eating disorder survivor and someone who intermittent fasts—and I do so with great success. 

But I understand that this might not be the case for everyone. What I want to do here is lay the case for a perhaps unpopular, or maybe just comparatively under-voiced opinion. Namely, that intermittent fasting, which requires you to fast for 16 hours a day and eat for eight, may help you build a better, happier, and healthier relationship with food. 

Me, before and after I started intermittent fasting. Lost 40lbs and gained a load of lean muscle mass...and joy!

Intermittent Fasting: The Facts, The Fiction

It seems the main objection to intermittent fasting as it pertains to people with eating disorders surrounds the misconception that it requires you to starve or deprive yourself. 

The facts: By the time my eight hour eating window is over, I am ready to stop eating. Not because I don't like eating, but because after eight hours of almost non-stop eating, I am ready to take a break from it. Far from starving, I am replete. My cup runneth over.

Intermittent fasting doesn't restrict what you eat or how much you eat—you still need to eat all the daily macronutrients your body requires to be healthy and strong—intermittent fasting restricts when you eat. In my experience, what intermittent fasting requires is an intense respect for food. When I was first trying to dig myself out of my eating disorder, this was the hardest thing for me to do: respect food, as vital and good and something to enjoy. Like any healthy diet, I still need to eat mostly healthy foods when I intermittent fast, but if I occasionally eat my son’s Skittles when he’s at school or more than the recommended serving size of Sean's amazing DIY Bounty Bars, that's okay. Because intermittent fasting facilitates a system of optimal hormonal balance for jacked up metabolic function, I know that these sporadic indulgences won't make a damn bit of difference to my results. The treats don't send me spiralling into the maw of negative self talk...or worse. I see food, more clearly, as something to savour eating. Even the less than healthy choices. Especially the less than healthy choices. I seldom feel guilty about eating anymore. This is huge, and it’s only happened since I started intermittent fasting a few years ago. 

More than the lack of guilt is the increased feelings of control over my food. And almost anyone who has suffered from an eating disorder can testify to the fact that control. Is. EVERYTHING.  But the sort of white-knucked, frenetic control that dominates eating disorders is not good. The control I learned through intermittent fasting is a calm, informed control; an “I know what I’m doing, no worries”, sort of control. So,  when it's 10pm and I have been fasting since 5pm and I think I may be hungry, it is immensely empowering for me to quickly review everything I ate all day (and it's a lot) and remember that I'm good: I've eaten enough. I may be bored, or thirsty, and I am almost definitely tired and should stop watching Jessica Jones and go to bed, but there is no way I am actually hungry. I ate enough. I'm good. And if I am truly stomach gnawing hungry and realize I really didn't hit my macros during the day, then guess what? I eat. I break my fast and eat an apple with a gobbing spoonful of almond butter. Or cinnamon raisin Ezekial bread with raw honey. I eat knowing that it's no big deal, since intermittent fasting is not a process that demands 100% perfection, just general consistency. If I only fast five days a week, I still keep seeing results in the mirror and in my mind. That old fear that would spike whenever I thought I might need to eat? It's gone.

Mind and Matter

It's gone at least in part because in addition to helping people lose fat and build muscle, intermittent fasting has been shown to help manage moods, increase focus and even improve sleep. The science supports these claims, but of equal importance (to me, at least), my experience supports these claims.

Yours may not. Perhaps you're reading this and you have an eating disorder and the very idea of intermittent fasting is so triggering it makes you want to crawl out of your skin. Then don’t do it. I respect this lifestyle is not for you. I have the same triggered response to keto, since it does restrict what I can eat and I spent most of my life feeling restricted about what I was allowed to eat. Moreover, I feel it that keto categorizes the restricted foods as “bad”, and in my healthy, disorder free life, there’s no room for the guilt that so often accompanies eating “bad” foods. But maybe other people don’t feel this way. Obviously, keto does work for many others. I think that’s great.

My point is not to knock intermittent fasting—or any lifestyle that promotes health and wellness—until you've really done your research (real research, not scrolling the comments), and/or, after speaking to your doctor, tried it yourself. Even if you don't have a history of eating disorders, you should talk to your doctor before drastically changing up your diet. I know many people intermittent fast without realizing it, since they skip their first meal, but it's always a good idea to talk to a healthcare professional who knows you anyway. It bears repeating: this talk is absolutely essential if you have or have had an eating disorder. I spoke with my doctor before I started and was given the go-ahead (but was also told to put it on hold when I was pregnant or nursing. There are other conditions that are not conducive to intermittent fasting. You can read about them here). 

What matters, really, is that we appreciate the complexity of the human condition and avoid making overarching judgments about lifestyle choices. Even when those judgements are based on our experiences, it’s important to remember that we all experience things differently. There’s no single road to happiness.

If you want to try intermittent fasting and have got the green light from your doctor, start with the ebook. Remember: you can get 30% off when you use promo code FASTED30.