Religious Fasting Can Exacerbate Eating Disorders

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On the Monday after the Jewish fasting holiday of Yom Kippur, Times of Israel writer Sarah Tuttle-Singer wrote a heartbreaking piece about why she chose not to participate in the fast.

She wrote that when she fasts “something happens that makes [her] push through another day of fasting, and then another and another.”

Singer, who is an American-Israeli mother of two, has struggled with eating disorders her whole life. For her and many other religious women who struggle with eating disorders, fasting holidays are a dangerous temptation.

“It is a socially acceptable, even sanctioned, way to not eat, which is what their eating disorder wants them to do anyway,” says Dr. Dina Zeckhausen, psychologist and founder of the Eating Disorders Information Network

“On this one day, their unhealthy behavior is normalized and accepted.”

In many passages, the Bible suggests fasts as a way to cleanse the spirit of toxins, and so the world’s major religions—Christianity, Islam and Judaism— have adopted traditions of fasting for a day or weeks at a time.

Boston Rabbi Neil Hirsch says “We fast because it is a mitzvah, a sacred commandment.”
For Jews, there are two major fasting days and four minor fast days throughout the year. An Iranian Imam at the Islamic Development Organization says fasting “is so important that it is interwoven with life and surviving.” For Muslims, the entire month of Ramadan is a fast from sunset to sundown. Campus Crusade for Christ calls fasts “the most powerful spiritual discipline of all the Christian disciplines.” For Christians, fasting traditions are less strict and vary widely; Catholics fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and Mormons fast every first Sunday of the month.

But for the 70 million people who suffer from eating disorders worldwide, according to the Renfrew Center Foundation for Eating Disorders, socially-encouraged fasting is like a pass to play with the devil. The thought of governing and calculating food and the reward of hunger pain in a socially acceptable situation is a guilty treat.

Dr. Zeckhausen has had two clients recently that have struggled with eating disorders during religious fasting. One was a 55-year-old woman with a history of bulimia who decided to fast on Yom Kippur, despite knowing the risks. (It should be known that Judaism allows for those who have medical conditions or are pregnant to pass on the fast, but social mores remain great pressures.)  On the day of the fast, she went the day without eating, then binged and purged later in the night. Another woman decided not to fast on the holiday out of concern for her health and told her friends and family she wouldn’t be participating this year. On the day of the fast, she didn’t fast but still found herself eating very little throughout the day because everyone else was.

“The voice of the eating disorder in their head will always look for an acceptable excuse to restrict food,” Dr. Zeckhausen says.

Jennifer Strickland was a model for FORD in the 80s, traveling the world opening shows for Georgio Armani. She says at the pinnacle of her career, she became anorexic--  a control issue she continues to struggle with today.

“If I can control what I do eat or I don’t eat, I can control my life,” she explains.  

Strickland said she was healed of her anorexia the first time by finding God, and today she runs a ministry and speaks on body image and following God in Texas. Strickland emphasizes that she does not follow a specific church. However, she chooses to fast every once in a while to spiritually cleanse.

“Recently I did a fast for spiritual reasons,” she says. “It started getting to the point where I was getting too thin, and I knew right away that I had to stop… fasting for spiritual reasons was not going to be healthy for my soul.”

Dr. Zeckhausen advises flatly not to engage in a religious fast if you have an eating disorder, because they are too tempting.

Strickland says women with eating disorders who are confronted with traditional religious fasting are forced to decide “‘Am I going to be a voice for change or am I going to obey the traditions... and ask God to help me do it?”

Singer, who wrote the blog post on skipping the fast on Yom Kippur, chose to be a voice for change.