The Dark Side of Fasting

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I was listening to a popular podcast the other day, and in one segment, the host was discussing an article regarding the potential dangers of fasting. Specifically, how fasting can lead to disordered eating.

The host dismissed this idea stating that a practice that has been around for thousands of years (mainly in a religious sense) cannot be the source of disordered eating.

When it comes to the modern human being, I must disagree.

Just to be clear, I fast. I fast a lot. In fact, I did my first 5 day water-only fast in my early twenties, and in 2009, I had an article published titled ‘Why I Fast.’

I am not anti-fasting. But I have also become quite familiar with the psychological issues that can come along with the practice.

When I want to know how a particular intervention (diet, exercise, lifestyle, or otherwise) affects people other than me, I join a private facebook group dedicated to that practice. When people are inside a closed echo-chamber filled with others who share a similar ideology, you get to see what is really at the core of the community. I have done this with the vegan community, plant-based diets, the carnivore and keto communities, and the most active fasting group on Facebook.

This is an essential practice for me because I am not the average person. If I assume other people will do things exactly like me, I am going to give bad advice.

Since joining that fasting group almost 4 months ago, I have seen a lot of concerning trends in the group. Everything from feelings of failure when a person can’t go 72 hours without food, to lashing out against family members who are concerned when a loved when goes 3-4 days without eating as a method of weight loss, to this insane example of people in the group being afraid to brush their teeth as it may kick them out of ‘autophagy’ (a natural cellular ‘clean up’ driven by the absence of calories).

These ‘toothpaste’ posts that I pulled from the group search have been posted in the last few months alone. I also added a few other concerning posts from the last few days for the sake of variety.

Do you still think fasting has a low probability of driving disordered eating? If so, would like to know what your definition of an eating disorder is.

This is not O.K.

The only defense I can come up with to push back against my perspective on this is that fasting does not create disordered eating, but the idea of fasting attracts people who are already struggling psychologically in this area. This is possible, if not probable. But I also have to ask, ‘does it really matter’?

Fasting is a tool. It can be helpful. It is a practice that I recommend to many people. But to ignore the dark side of fasting, which clearly exists in many people (especially when it is touted as a weight-loss tool) is irresponsible.

I have learned to be very careful with how, when, and why I suggest interventions like fasting to my clients. I hope more professionals will follow suit.

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Tommy Caldwell

Tommy Caldwell is the Founder of Hybrid Fitness and the bestselling author of the books Heavy Brain and the MetFlex-Rx diet. He is a performance coach, specializing in behaviour change and self-discipline that are necessary for achieving health and fitness goals.

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