Last August, I wrote an article about intermittent fasting (IF). After hearing about it from friends, publicists and Instagram influencers for months, I decided to give it a try, thinking that at least it would be a good story, and at best it would be something I would incorporate into my life long-term.
If you’re not familiar, there are a few different ways to do IF, but the plan that best fit my lifestyle—or so I thought—was Eat Stop Eat. This method dictates that you fast for 24 straight hours once a week, then eat normally the remaining six days. During those 24 hours, I could have as much water as my heart desired, along with black coffee and tea.
After the eight weeks I tried it out for the story, I was hooked. “What started as a challenge borne out of genuine curiosity,” I wrote toward the end of my review, “has become something I can see myself continuing for the foreseeable future.”
For me, it was completely doable to go 24 hours without food—too doable, it turns out. When people would ask if it was hard to go an entire day without food, I would tell them it wasn’t—and I wasn’t lying. I thought about why something so many of my friends and co-workers told me they could never do felt so natural, and then it hit me: For me, intermittent fasting was an extension of the eating disorder that controlled my life for the better part of a decade.
As someone with a rocky relationship with food, I realized that intermittent fasting had let me slip back into destructive habits under the guise of wellness. I’m not relapsing, I told myself; everyone is doing it. The trend was everywhere, from The New York Times to BBC, so it couldn’t be dangerous, right? Wrong.
Some weeks, I would push my fast longer than 24 hours to test how long I could go without feeling faint. It was very “And right before I feel I'm going to faint, I eat a cube of cheese.” (If you don’t understand that Devil Wears Prada reference, we can’t be friends.) Other weeks I would break my fast after 24 hours, only to severely restrict my calories for the next six days. I felt the familiar combination of exhilaration and guilt that comes from purposefully depriving your body.
It turns out, that’s not necessarily unusual. Lots of experts agree that not only can intermittent fasting cause eating disorders to resurface, it can also make them appear in people who were previously unaffected.
“While intermittent fasting has grown in popularity over the last year, as a registered dietitian and nutritionist, I don’t encourage its restrictive principles when working with my clients,” Melissa Kelly, MS, RD, CDN told us. “Overall, I feel like it steers people away from tuning into their natural feelings of hunger and fullness, by telling them when they can eat.”
Dr. Allison Chase, an eating disorder specialist, told The Guardian, “any eating behaviors that involve restriction or rigid rules is concerning” and can be a precursor to diagnosable eating disorders.
For a few months, I reasoned that I wasn’t slipping back into an eating disorder, I was just practicing moderation. Not so, according to Emily T. Troscianko, Ph.D., who writes, “But the thing is, this isn’t moderation, this is yo-yoing between extremes of self-denial and self-indulgence. And in this key respect [IF is] terrifyingly like anorexia: like the 23 hours of gnawing hunger building up to a single faultlessly orchestrated feast, which is all that gives life pleasure and meaning.”
I’m lucky that I recognized the signs of my eating disorder reemerging early enough to stop. (I’ll note here that weaning myself off of IF wasn’t something I did on my own; therapy played a really crucial role.) Food-wise, I’ve settled on a much healthier approach—intuitive eating. Basically, the idea is that you should eat when you're hungry and stop when you're full. Instead of relying on complicated calorie counting or labeling entire food groups as off-limits, intuitive eating is about knowing how your body feels and works in relation to what you’re putting into it. Are there still days when—after a particularly indulgent weekend—I’m tempted to fast? Absolutely, but characterizing intermittent fasting as another form of disordered eating (again, in my personal experience) has helped me deal with those feelings when they arise.
All of this is to say that intermittent fasting can be an effective tool if—and only if—you have a positive relationship with food and you do it under the supervision of a doctor or registered dietitian. For some people, I’m sure it’s a sustainable way to live, but for people who have a spotty past with food, I would strongly (strongly) encourage you to rethink IF.