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Intermittent Fasting - A cure for binge eating disorder or just new fangled dumbness?

Intermittent Fasting: 

The newest  old thing with a fancy name. 

I have been getting lots of emails recently asking me if Intermittent Fasting is helpful for people with Binge Eating Issues. I have lots of thoughts, but I want to start by telling you about my early experiences with IF. 

The very first time I learned about intermittent fasting was in 1985. I was in 5th grade and my best friend’s upstairs neighbor, who was in 6th grade had lost 13 pounds through intermittent fasting. I mean, we were children and it was 1985 so it wasn’t really intermittent fasting, it was that Shoshana drank a cup of tea for breakfast,  a diet coke for lunch and then whatever her parents gave her for dinner.  I thought that sounded CRAZY! But then in 7th grade, when my hips and breasts started coming in and my period started, I thought that I would try it. Of course it wasn’t called intermittent fasting back then. It was called  “the diet that we all went on so that our parents wouldn’t know that we were dieting.”

Puberty, incidentally is a high risk time for girls to begin eating disorders. That’s because in order to start menstruating, girls’ bodies begin to put on body fat and the changes that take place can seem sudden and out of control. I remember for sure that when I began maturing, my mother made many comments about how my body was changing and that I’d better watch out because once I got my period, weight would be impossible to lose. Wow! Crazy messaging!  But I believed it and wanted to do whatever I could to stop that cycle. So I went on Shoshana’s special diet of tea for breakfast, diet coke for lunch and dinner was whatever my mother gave me. 

Nowadays, you can’t open your computer or look at your phone without seeing something about intermittent fasting. An eating disorder for adolescent girls turned into a way of life for tech bros. People have written books about it, people sell programs, apps, meal plans… it’s just the next diet plan that people are looking to cash in on. I mean, Shoshana Kaufman could have written a book back in 1985, it would be called “How To Diet Without Your Parents Finding Out.”

Intermittent Fasting: Or How to Diet Without Your Parents Finding Out By Shoshana Kaufman – Grade 6. P.S.24, Bronx, NY 1985

Chapter One – Don’t Eat Breakfast

Chapter Two– Don’t Eat Lunch

Chapter Three- Eat Whatever Your Parents make you for dinner

Often I will write about certain diets and I’ll be attacked by people for having a differing opinion about them. I wrote a post about low carb diets some years ago and got attacked by the low carb mafia. Really nasty, nasty emails and comments. Here’s the thing… this is a blog for people who are trying to recover from an eating disorder. And for people who have eating disorders or disordered eating behaviors, these kinds of rulesy eating plans are always contraindicated.  However, there are so many promises that intermittent fasting makes that people are being led to believe that it’s a panacea for all that ails them. 

Intermittent fasting has lots of promises behind it:

Promise #1. You will become “clear-headed” and able to concentrate better if you’re not worried about eating.

My thoughts: Are you able to concentrate when you’re hungry? I’m not. In fact all I can think about is food. I remember being in school as a kid during my restriction days and just zoning out while I fantasized about food. I did this in college too and early on in my adult life when I was still in my eating disorder. In fact, the more I restricted, the less engaged in life I was because I was just focused on not eating and fantasizing about food and what I would eat when I finally let myself eat! 

Are there people who are clear-headed? I’m not sure, but what I do know for sure is that my anorexic patients do come to a place of feeling almost ethereal when they’re not eating. Why? It’s likely because their brain and their organs are beginning to shut down. Their body is using less energy and trying to conserve what it has to use. 

Promise #2. It gives you lots of energy. 

My thoughts: Well, as someone who was an athlete in high school and continues to be athletic now, I can tell you for sure that not eating NEVER gave me more energy. On the days that I would do Shoshana’s diet, I was super sluggish in swim practice. On the days that I did eat breakfast, I would fly through the water. As I got older and started running, I had the same experience. A banana goes a long way before a morning run. A run on an empty stomach in the morning is nothing but a way to run out of gas immediately. Again, I have no idea why people would suggest that their energy is increased. My suspicion is that if you are someone who wakes up and eats a very large and difficult to digest breakfast that creates more sluggishness in your day-to-day, then this would be an improvement. Yet that can also be solved with mindful eating, figuring out what gives your body energy and vitality through your own self-experimentation and trial and error. For instance, I’ve figured out that breakfast cereal will leave me feeling sluggish and hungry, but eggs and cheese and fruit carries me straight through my morning and holds me until lunch. That’s something I had to figure out on my own, not something that someone else could tell me. Your body, your needs. It’s okay to experiment until YOU find what works for YOUR body. No one else can tell you that. 

Promise #3. You will lose weight effortlessly

My thoughts: Now here’s when we come to the Binge Eating Disorder issue. When I did Shoshana’s diet, I was very, very, very likely to binge at night. And honestly, I did that crazy diet for many years. I did it from the age of 12 until I was in my early 20’s. Not every day of course, but I did it often and I binged pretty much every day. It was awful.  And did I lose weight? Actually, no I gained a good amount of weight because of the bingeing. 

If you have an eating disorder, intermittent fasting is likely not the right path for you. Here are the reasons: 

People with eating disorders tend to have black and white thinking. Thus, if you are planning to restrict your food for a set amount of time and then you “mess up,” it’s likely that it will trigger some extreme behaviors, like either a binge or compensatory exercise or a purge or a long period of restriction. 

People with eating disorders teeter between extremes so a full day of not eating could often lead to an evening of binge eating. 

People with eating disorders will often go to extremes to “get it right” even if their body tells them that they need to eat, so they might either completely ignore the cues of their bodies or they might engage in dangerous behaviors (like drugs or excessive coffee drinking) to ensure that they stick to their goals. 

Read How Intermittent Fasting Triggered my Binge Eating Disorder

Do I think that there is anything valuable about Intermittent Fasting? 

If you have a propensity toward eating disorders, I’m going to say that no, intermittent fasting is nothing more than the same diet you went on in elementary school that started this whole disordered eating thing to begin with. You could have written the book and sold the items. Intermittent fasting teaches you how to ignore your body’s cues for hunger. And those of us with disordered eating have known how to do that for years. And we know what happens when we ignore our bodies’ cues for hunger – when we are tired, our body fights back and we binge.  Perhaps for people who eat mindlessly all the time, a day or two of intermittent fasting might help them to hear their bodies’ cues for hunger and learn what that feels like, but beyond that, I don’t believe that this is the best new thing. I think that people have found a way to package an eating disorder into a new fangled diet with a fancy name.

What intermittent fasting does is the same thing that all diets do, it takes away choice – and in that taking away of choice, people feel safer around food. It creates a structure where they can control their food intake. As Soren Kierkegaard said,  “anxiety is the dizziness of freedom…” and it’s true. People become so overwhelmed with choice around food and diets, that this feels like an easy way to take away the choice and limit their food intake. 

As always, my opinion remains – listen to your body, give it what it needs when it needs it.  You CAN trust your body to guide you toward what it needs to be healthy. Your body knows. I can promise you that. You might not always get it right, but the closer you listen, the better you will get to know your body. Your body has so much wisdom. Unlike 1000 or even 100 years ago, food is readily available to you and so you have the opportunity to give it yummy, nourishing food when it needs it. 

Intermittent Fasting
Intermittent Fasting and binge eating
Intermittent Fasting and binge eating
Intermittent Fasting and binge eating

Intermittent Fasting and binge eating

intermittent fasting and binge eating

 

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  • Natasha Sunshine

    I don’t agree with you about this issue at all. As someone who has struggled with binge eating, IMF has helped me immensely. It sounds like you don’t understand IMF. You don’t starve yourself when you eat this way. It actually taught me to control my eating behavior. It taught me to differentiate between hunger and emotional hunger cues. I now not only eat well but I eat intuitively.

    • Hi There Natasha – restricted eating or intentional weight loss are both contraindicated in all eating disorder recovery. Diets for someone recovering from eating disorders are like vodka for someone recovering from alcoholism.

  • Emrys Naga Inti

    Thank you so much for this text!!! I have since i was a child been dealing with some serious binge eating and sugar addiction and for the last year i have complete lost it. At this point i am so stuck in my food addiction that nothing else exists anymore. The food is in total control of me and i can´t break it!!! I am binging massive amounts of food, junks and sugar alsmost every day (from early morning until i go to bed). I am eating untili get unconscious or until i faint, but still i keep on going when i wake up. I am obese and my body and organs are so destroyed, exhausted and damaged that i can´t walk or move proper anymore.

    Earlier i had a period when i was not binging or obsessed with food at all. I just ate really healthy macrobiotic and vegan raw food and things were more balanced even if i were dealing with a lot of other mental things. my mental. But then my thyroid broke (i was diagnosed with Hashimoto´s disease) and when also i was burded out at work.The stress was speeded up and i was hit by a constant and massive apetite that never went away and i lost everything!!! I relapsed into binging and during this time i also came across a lot of studies about fasting and the benefits of doing it. And for someone that is desperate and wanna find a quick solution to get back on the right track again i felt like doing some kind of fasting was a really great idea. I mean if other people could do it why wouldn´t i be able doing it? So during this spring i started doing fasting (tested skipping breakfast at first and then started skipping dinner, i also had a couple of days only having tea and water do detox the system) and in the beginning i was feeling really good!!! I got more energy, i lost the weight i had gained and i felt more calm and also the apetite/cravings/stress around food were reduced. Then BAM!!! Around 2 months later i complete lost it! I started binging again and this time it´s worse than ever. I am slowly killing myself but stil i can´t stop eating… I just can´t stop! I thought it was bad before but hey, nothing can be compared to how it is now! I have gained all the weight i lost big times (+ a lot more…) and from being in the normal weight-category i have become obese. I am more obsessed with food than ever and i don´t really know what to do anymore. Also i have developed fat liver, diabetes type 2, insulin and leptin resistance, Candida, Leaky gut syndrome and a lot of other diseases. I am still trying to do some fasting sometimes to have the control back but it does not work at all anymore. I can do like one day but the next day i am binging nonstop the whole day. I am listening to other people that sucessfully practice fasting and other diets and i feel like a complete freak for not being able to stay clean even for one day… Like what´s wrong with me?

    But then i have been reading a lot of studies about food addiction and BED and many people and experts seem to agree that the worst thing you can do when you are dealing with an eating disorder is pushing yourself into the limits or some extreme diet. If you are not dealing with an eating disorder fasting could be very healing for both your mental and physical state, but i don´t know if it is the right thing to do when you are dealing with binging. Cause the whole system is so stressed out and under constant pressure (and a lot of people are also suffering from different kinds of hormonal imbalances that causes more stress and symptoms).
    So from what i have heard, the best thing you could do if you ever gonna recover and heal your body and brain is actually eating!!! Eating regular and healthy meals, not restricting your food and not skipping any meals. When you are a binge eater skipping meals could be very triggering and damaging for both your physical and mental state and it might be true. I don´t know, i am not an expert but all i know is that fasting is not working very well for me and i am so tired of being in this mess…

    and i am so stucked in this nightmare. I am desperate cause ii faint or get or