Some religious traditions observe certain sacred times of the year by fasting. Many people who have grown up fasting during these times have grown accustomed to the practice and it serves as a meaningful symbol of devotion. For people prone to eating disorders, fasting can be trigger. Is it possible to adhere to religious practices like fasting when you have an eating disorder? Studies have shown that while in some cases socio-religious factors can contribute to eating disorder behavior, the chances that a person will develop an eating disorder from fasting practices are not fully connected to religion.
Understanding the Experiences of Women Who Engage in Religious Fasting
An article published on Science of Eating Disorders highlights some of the studies that have been conducted to help understand the experiences of women who engage in religious fasting. The first study, of women in Bulgaria who used fasting, attempted to differentiate dieting and fasting. A sample of 205 women were grouped into faith related categories (non-believers, passive, and active believers) and dietary categories (non-restrictors, dieters, and dieter-fasters). Level of eating distress among the sample was assessed using the EAT-40 and the authors found that in women who exhibited a high level of eating distress, strong faith could lead to more dietary restriction, and women who scored low in eating distress and had strong faith were less likely to have dietary and body image issues.
Another study about the experiences of people observing Ramadan in Turkey endeavored to determine why adolescent medicine referrals increased during and after Ramadan. This Muslim holy period is traditionally observed by fasting during daylight hours. The authors utilized case studies to determine whether or not the act of fasting during Ramadan contributed to the development of eating disorders. The study results suggested that while fasting does not cause eating disorders, it can serve as a trigger in those who are at risk for developing an eating disorder.
Predisposing Factors as Eating Disorder Develops
Does it mean that long-standing traditions of fasting are negative and should be avoided? Not necessarily. Fasting for a period of time can certainly have negative effects on the body and mind. But not everyone who fasts for religious purposes will develop an eating disorder. There are predisposing factors like genetics, personality traits, issues with anxiety and depression, and body image concerns that come into play as an eating disorder develops. Fasting for holy periods like Ramadan, combined with these predisposing factors, can be a trigger for an eating disorder. It is important for providers to be aware of their patient’s genetic, environmental, behavioral, and sociocultural influences in order to best assess the appropriateness of fasting.
Science of Eating Disorders (2015). Not So Fast: Is There a Connection Between Religious Fasting and Eating Disorders? scienceofeds.org