Intermittent Fasting Can Be Dangerous — Especially For Folks With A History Of Disordered Eating

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I am someone who likes to make my own rules around food. After struggling with anorexia and then binge eating as a teen, I can not have restrictions when it comes to my diet. It’s too much of a trigger for me.

I go by how I feel and choose foods that make me feel good. Usually that means having no limits on nourishing foods. I eat a ton of fruit despite the fact that lots of so-called “diets” tell you how much sugar there is in fruit and that you should stay away from things like bananas and grapes. I also need to eat when I’m hungry, and for me, that varies every day.

I’ve tried to listen to advice that’s the opposite (like not eating at night, or limiting the kinds of foods I eat) and all it does is make me feel deprived and sad, and I can feel myself dipping into old habits. Like telling myself I am weak and a failure if I decide to have something that’s deemed as bad. Then, what follows is me stuffing my face with it hours after I’ve told myself I need to give it up.

After hearing about intermittent fasting a few years ago, a dieting fad that has you eating whatever you want during certain hours of the day (usually noon to eight p.m.), and fasting for the rest of time as a way to restrict your calories and potentially lose weight, I knew there was no way I could do it.

I will not tell myself when I can and can’t eat because, again, that’s a trigger for me; then I go rogue and my behavior is followed by self loathing.

I have a few friends who were getting into this new way of eating and not putting anything digestible into their bodies until noon.

At first, many said it was working and they felt great. But it didn’t last. I noticed none of them stuck to it, and each ended up feeling like this was yet another thing they weren’t able to do and they were never going to lose the weight they wanted to.

I have a friend who did it and ended up gaining over ten pounds and said she never felt so sick and tired in her life. “I was starving when noon rolled around and I’d stuff myself until it was time to stop eating. Then, I [would] hate myself and tell myself I was going to do better tomorrow, but the cycle kept continuing.”

Basically, she was feeling so deprived that when her hours of eating came up, that’s all she did because she knew they would be taken away from her. She admitted the only “result” it had was making her feel out of control when it came to food.

A study published in JAMA Internal Medicine studied the results of adults who, for three months, practiced eating for eight hours a day and fasting for twelve (or more) hours a day, and showed little success.

On average, the fasting group (which was made up of men and women) lost an average of about three pounds (most of which was muscle mass) which was only slightly more than the control group who ate three structured meals per day.

Scary Mommy spoke with Colleen Christensen, a registered dietitian who warns that restrictive eating can lead to binge eating. In addition, she says that fads such as intermittent fasting “commonly lead to weight cycling (losing, regaining, losing, regaining, etc) which has been shown to increase risk for disease.

While I’ve never conducted a study, I can honestly say the handful of friends and family members who I know tried intermittent fasting said they struggled with binge eating when their fasting period was over.

Being super strict with when you can and can’t eat may lead to disordered eating, according to Christensen. “Any time you implement strict food rules, be it amounts of foods, types of foods, etc. our bodies will see this as a threat and want to ‘stock up’ on those foods when they can,” she says. “Binge eating is a common phenomenon that happens. It may also lead to other disordered eating such as orthorexia or severe fear of eating foods outside of set rules. All of this leads to increased stress to the body, which is not beneficial for our health.”

This is the exact opposite of what we are trying to achieve when we take on a new eating plan and try to make healthy eating a new lifestyle choice.

If it’s leading to binge eating, gaining weight when we are trying to lose it, strict rules around when we can and can’t eat, and feelings of failure, shame, depression, or anxiety, what’s the benefit? Even if we do drop a few pounds, is it even worth it?

I say absolutely not — and my friends who tried it would agree.

Kristin Foust, a certified nutrition coach, told Scary Mommy via email that we should also be aware that many of the studies done on this kind of fasting are done on men, who have different bodies and hormone profiles than women.

Foust warns that when done for long periods of time,”Intermittent fasting can cause hormonal imbalance and issues such as fatigue. Especially if done regularly and other issues such as poor sleep, poor diet, and chronic stress are not addressed first.”

Foust also cautions that anyone who has struggled with disordered eating in the past should not try any kind of diet like this, as it can be a trigger.

This kind of restrictive eating doesn’t have a huge success rate, and can also bring about a lot of other added problems you may not have signed up for when you decided to try it to drop a few pounds.

It’s best to just nourish your body when it tells you it’s hungry — because depriving yourself will only backfire later, when all you want to do is eat donut holes dipped in peanut butter.