It seems that fasting has become the new standard of dieting, and also a central focus of the health community as well. Like most diets, it’s presented as the answer (or at least a partial solution) to many health and weight issues, and even as a potential solution for binge eating. I’m sure you know more than one person in your life who is on a fasting-type diet. I also know that fasting can be portrayed as “not a diet at all,” but as a lifestyle and way of eating that’s “more in line with how our bodies are designed.” These are complex issues, and although I would not make an overarching statement that binge eaters or recovered binge eaters can never fast under any circumstances, I think there are many compelling reasons not to.
I get a lot of questions about fasting and binge eating recovery, so I want to share a guest post from Gillian Riley, who has great advice on this topic. Gillian is the author of Ditching Diets, which I recommend on the FAQ page of this website, and I also cited Gillian’s work in my second book, the Brain over Binge Recovery Guide. You can read more about Gillian Riley in her bio at the end of this post. As you read, know that Gillian doesn’t write specifically for binge eaters, but for anyone who struggles with poor eating habits, yo-yo dieting, and overeating. However, what she says is also applicable to those of you who binge, and I hope you find her well-informed guest post helpful.
NOT SO FAST (by Gillian Riley)
When it was published in 2013, I bought a copy of the bestseller The Fast Diet to see what it was all about. In case you don’t know, it was published as a result of the interest in the BBC Horizon documentary about Intermittent Fasting (IF), written by the program presenter Dr Michael Mosley and journalist Mimi Spencer.
I believe that fasting is beneficial, but not necessarily advisable for everyone, so I wanted to read the book to discover new information and research, but also, I was curious to see if it contained any words of caution. There are words of caution about fasting; a paragraph on page 124 warns those with Type 1 diabetes not too fast, those with an eating disorder, children, and those who are already very slim. And anyone with any medical condition should consult a doctor first.
If you bought a copy of my book, Eating Less, between 1998 and the first half of 2005, you’ve got an edition that contains a chapter on fasting once a week. As well as instructions on how to fast in a non-addictive way, I describe some good reasons not too fast. In later editions, I took out all mention of fasting, partly because people weren’t paying any attention to those reasons. Perhaps it’s time now to put them back in (if I could) but here’s how they appeared in those first editions of Eating Less:
- It’s not a good idea to fast if you are desperate to lose weight, or if you have a history of anorexia or bulimia.
- It’s not a good idea to fast if you have a tendency to overeat either before or after a fast.
- It’s not a good idea to fast if you go on a fast as a way to take control of your overeating.
- It’s not a good idea to fast if you are not in the best of health, if you’re coming down with an illness or recovering from one, or if you suffer from a condition such as diabetes or hypoglycemia.
- It’s not a good idea to fast if you don’t normally eat a high-quality diet at other times.
This has some similarity with Mosley and Spencer’s cautions, but also some differences. In particular, my caution not to fast if you don’t normally eat high-quality food would seem to contradict their advice to “eat what you like most of the time”. However, Mosley and Spencer say,
“You could pig out on your non-fast days…but you won’t do that. In all likelihood, you’ll remain gently, intuitively attentive to your calorie intake, almost without noticing. Similarly, you may find yourself naturally favouring healthier foods once your palate is modified by your occasional fasts. So yes, eat freely, forbid nothing, but trust your body to say ‘when’.”
So they seem to be saying that it’s fine to eat anything at all on non-fast days, but once you’ve started fasting you’ll end up eating healthy food anyway.
Now, I’m a great advocate of an if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it approach to everything, so if IF works for you, that’s wonderful. But all too often people struggle with such advice – and they blame themselves. They conclude, “for everybody else, fasting two days a week is not only fairly straightforward, but also sorts out all the rest of their crazy eating on the other five days. What’s wrong with me that I can’t even begin to do this?”
Maybe it’s not that fasting isn’t a good idea, but that there are other important steps for you to take first. To return to my cautions:
- It’s not a good idea to fast if you are desperate to lose weight, or if you have a history of anorexia or bulimia. Note that both authors of The Fast Diet took on fasting entirely for health reasons. The health benefits of fasting – such as dipping into ketosis from time to time and the fascinating process of autophagy – are well established (1, 2). There’s also impressive research showing a beneficial impact on brain health (3). But Mosley and Spencer seem oblivious to the fact that many people will be motivated to fast primarily to improve their appearance, and this makes a massive difference.
- It’s not a good idea to fast if you have a tendency to overeat either before or after a fast – and – It’s not a good idea to fast if you go on a fast as a way to take control of your overeating. It’s clear that neither of the authors have ever had an addictive relationship with food – what many people call ‘food issues’. The research they cite on the success of IF from the University of Chicago studied just 16 obese people over 10 weeks. (4) I’m sure you know of people who complied with various protocols for at least 10 weeks and then regained their weight in the longer term. They were able to ‘be good’ and ‘follow the rules’ for a while, but this simply doesn’t last for the majority. I’m not saying that fasting is a bad idea; I’m saying it might not provide a complete and permanent solution for everyone who generally overeats.
- It’s not a good idea to fast if you are not in the best of health, if you’re coming down with an illness or recovering from one, or if you suffer from a condition such as diabetes or hypoglycemia. I’m no expert on these health issues, but I’m not at all sure that fasting is good for those with Type 2 diabetes and especially hypoglycemia. This is why those with diabetes are exempt from fasting on religious occasions such as Ramadan.
- It’s not a good idea to fast if you don’t normally eat a high-quality diet at other times. This of course depends on what you call a high-quality diet, but my view would be low on the starchy carbohydrates such as grain-based foods and sugars. It’s important for your body to be very well nourished through eating the most nutrient-dense foods, so that it doesn’t go into ‘scarcity mode’ during a fast. In addition, fasting works much better in every way if your body has developed the ability to burn fat for energy, rather than only carbohydrate. If you normally burn only carbohydrate, you may struggle much more with hunger and low energy during a fast. (5)
I’ll add that if you exercise a great deal, if you regularly sleep badly, and/or if you are under quite a bit of stress, these also mean that fasting may not be right for you at the present time.
I suspect all this is sounding a bit negative, and the last thing I want to do is to dissuade you from fasting if it’s going to work for you. By all means give it a try. Notice and manage your addictive desire to eat and you can certainly find that it fits in very well with everything you’ve learned in my books and webinars.
The Fast Diet does advise against fasting for those with an eating disorder, and I agree with this. I’d take it further, though, because there are a great many people who have a tendency towards disordered eating who would do well to sort that out first, before considering a fast of any kind.
Gillian Riley is an author and webinar host who has been teaching her course on “Taking Control of Overeating” since 1997, at first in groups in London, England, and for the past three years online.
Her clients describe themselves as yo-yo dieters or ex-dieters. Instead of recommending what, how much and when to eat, Gillian teaches how to develop an entirely new attitude towards food, eating and weight loss. This way of thinking turns the diet mentality on its head, leading to a sustainable control of overeating.
Details on her free introductory webinars and one-week free trial of the membership site – starting January 26, 2020 – can be found at: https://eatinglessonline.com
1. “Targeting insulin inhibition as a metabolic therapy in advanced cancer.” Fine EJ, Segal-Isaacson CJ et al (2012) Nutrition 28(10):1028-35
2. “The effects of calorie restriction on autophagy.” Chung KW, Chung HY (2019) Nutrients Dec 2;11(12)
3. “Meal size and frequency affect neuronal plasticity and vulnerability to disease: cellular and molecular mechanisms.” Mattson MP, Duan W, Guo Z (2003) Journal of Neurochemistry 84(3):417-31
4. “Dietary and physical activity adaptations to alternate day modified fasting: implications for optimal weight loss.” Klempel MC, Bhutani S et al (2010) Nutrition Journal 9:35
5. “Effects of a high-protein ketogenic diet on hunger, appetite, and weight loss in obese men feeding ad libitum.” Johnstone AM, Horgan GW et al (2008) American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 87:44-55
I also did a video podcast episode with Gillian Riley (Episode 64: Stop Yo-Yo Dieting and Take Control of Overeating) where we discussed many topics related to developing a healthy relationship with food:
Watch the video interview with Gillian Riley on Youtube
Listen to the audio-only version on the Brain over Binge Podcast
I am excited to bring you a guest post from Katherine Thomson, PhD about recreating your identity as you stop bulimia and binge eating disorder. Katherine contributed some extremely helpful ideas and advice to The Brain over Binge Recovery Guide, and she also shared great insights and information in three of my podcast episodes so far: Episode 35 on Fostering a Positive Mindset in Recovery, Episode 52 on Food Addiction, and Episode 53 on Weight Obsession.
In this post, Katherine will help you understand how to gradually break free of your identity as a person with bulimia and binge eating disorder, and encourage you to stop forming your self-image around your weight and how you look. You’ll learn creative and refreshing ways to reconstruct your identity and improve how you feel about yourself during recovery and beyond.
Identity Reconstruction in Recovery, by Katherine Thomson, Ph.D.
I was “skinny chic” for all of ten brief months in my early 20s and then spent the better part of the next decade chasing after a body and self that would have been better off put to rest. For me, recovering from an eating disorder was a painfully slow, tedious process, and it’s only now that I can look back and see the things I could have done differently to cut myself some slack, things that would have sped up the entire recovery process considerably.
It’s Easier to Recover if you Feel Motivated
People recover from bulimia, anorexia, and binge eating disorder using all sorts of methods and techniques. What worked for me can basically be boiled down to plain, old fashioned behavior modification, using classic tools like setting goals, rewarding progress, and slowly shaping behaviors until they began producing desired results. Habit formation. I believe this approach works brilliantly when people can turn the process into a game and make it fun. And therein lies one of the biggest challenges in my approach, one I face with clients repeatedly: How can people get excited about shaping a new future if they’re stubbornly attached to the past?
Because I was attached to the past, I postponed everything, telling myself that I’d do all the things I wanted to do once I was satisfied with the number on the scale, the contents of my fridge, the contour of my cheekbone, and my ability to never, ever – God forbid – eat a pack of Oreos after a stressful family get-together. The problem with this mindset is that it not only robs you of joy, but it isn’t very motivating.
How I Discovered Identity Reconstruction
I landed upon the importance of identity reconstruction in recovery thanks to a dear friend I met eons ago in an eating disorder support group I attended in my early 20’s. I had recently gained a significant amount of weight over the course of 12 months. Unbeknownst to me at the time, both the low and high weights were numbers I would never again see on the scale, and I would have felt better if I’d known that. But all I could think about at the time was how heavy I was and how terrified I was of gaining yet more.
Each day was a struggle to leave the house and be seen by the world, and many mornings I didn’t succeed. My wardrobe at the time consisted of half a dozen ankle-length floral skirts from Goodwill paired with dark, long-sleeved tees. To make matters worse, I was still bingeing fairly regularly and saw no signs that I would or could ever stop. I logically knew it made sense to be kind to my body and that I should I find a way to do so, but I couldn’t bear looking in a mirror, let alone taking candlelit bubble baths or slathering myself with scented lotions.
After one meeting, I asked a woman in the group, someone I admired who was about six months ahead of me in the process, how she managed to stay optimistic and feel good about herself. “Dramatic flair,” was her answer, pointing to the miniature french braids at the crown of her head and shimmery scarf looped around her hips. This young woman was artistic by nature (today, she is a professional artist and owns her own business), and it hadn’t occurred to me that maybe she hadn’t always looked the part so thoroughly.
She took me to her place one afternoon and cracked open a photo album. Together, we scanned over pictures from her skinnier days. It is very sensitive for someone with bulimia or other forms of disordered eating to show others photos from all-time-thin days, and I am eternally grateful that she shared this with me. The photo I remember most clearly was of her riding a bike, skinny arms and legs flexed over the frame of a beach cruiser, and a tensely grinning face with enormous eyes. Her clothing was nondescript: shorts, tank, and flip flops. I was stunned by how childlike she looked. She was in her early 20s in the photo but could have easily passed for a high schooler. There were no signs of her artistry, her wisdom, her “dramatic flair.”
I asked a few more questions about how she landed upon her updated personal style, and later that week, I set out to update my own appearance. I went through my closet and tried on all the items that still fit until I found something that made me feel somewhat elevated: a red v-neck tunic with ¾ sleeves and a hem that hit slightly above the knees. I straightened my wavy hair, made a center part, and added dark lipstick and large hoop earrings. I looked in the mirror and felt nothing short of relief. I looked older, more womanly, and most importantly, I had driven a wedge between myself and the waiflike ghost that haunted me. Did I like how I looked? Not really, because my self-judgment ran very deep at that point in my life. But it was a welcome lateral move: I had taken myself out of the harsh lights of self-scrutiny. I could work with this.
Things got Easier
For the next year, I dressed like this pretty much every day. One of the first things I discovered was that there were in fact parts of my body I could like and appreciate at my larger size. I liked my neck, upper chest, and calves. I hadn’t really noticed them much because I had been so fixated on the hated roundness of my face and softness in my middle. The more comfortable I felt with my appearance, the easier it became to eat in self-respecting ways. Overeating didn’t seem as worth it, and I didn’t have as much to hide from.
In the many years that have transpired since, I’ve been through several identity reiterations. What I’ve come to learn is that whenever I’m experiencing a period of not liking how I look, it’s nothing more than a symptom of growing pains. It sounds so cheesy to say this, but I’ve come to appreciate the seasons of life, and I have a lot of respect for how hard it is to struggle toward something that doesn’t yet exist, something that is still struggling to take form.
Focus on the Future
Today when I work with clients, I press the importance of getting excited about the future. The goal is to take all that motivation and euphoria that used to be linked to dieting and funnel it into the more expansive goal of self development. This is a major feat because almost everybody I work with is still trying to reclaim something that no longer exists. More often than not, clients are completely stuck between a rock and a hard place, knowing they can’t go back to restriction but feeling uninspired toward the future. How many times have I heard people tearfully insist, “I’ll always be fat! I’m doomed to become my mother! There is no point.”
I try to drill in the idea that everything will be smoother if they can abandon such thoughts. I know it’s not easy, not at all. It takes discipline to choose not to believe these thoughts. Let me say it again: It is NOT easy to let go of grief and self-pity. But doing so will get you everywhere. I tell people that chances are, they will be happy with their bodies and appearance again. Most people with eating disorders eventually settle into a body that is slimmer than she or he had predicted, but it usually takes time because the legacy of starvation is profound. Early in recovery, even small amounts of weight loss can set the stage for rebound bingeing.
Try it out Yourself
How can someone get started on this process and create a transitional identity that allows them to look eagerly toward the future rather than longingly toward the past? Here are some concrete recommendations and journaling prompts to help get you started.
- Think of a person that you have found to be attractive across a range of body sizes. Maybe you have a coworker who was very slim before having children and is now larger but beautiful in a different way, or maybe you know someone who used to be a petite gymnast who is now a sculpted rock climber or sultry dancer. If you can’t think of anyone who fits this description, do searches for celebrities who have recovered from eating disorders.
- Reflect on this person or people and ask: What are some of the uniquely beautiful attributes of this person in their larger form? Do they look more loving? Mysterious? Glamorous?
- Now, it’s time to shift your attention inward. When you find yourself longing to reinhabit your former, thinner self, which specific qualities are you yearning to experience? Confidence? Delicacy? Grace? (list at least five)
- Of these five qualities, which of these are actually independent of body size and can just as easily apply to someone medium sized or larger?
- What five things can you do this year to evolve your personal style? Don’t limit yourself to your appearance. Would you like to be a better conversationalist, learn carpentry, become more ecologically responsible, practice minimalism, learn to surf, or master a culinary artform?
- Think ten years down the road. How old will you be? How do you hope to be at this age? Be bold and ambitious. It’s never too early or too late to be a politician or stand-up comedian.
- How can you begin branding a new identity using safe, reversible symbols and accessories? Consider temporary tattoos, ear cuffs, funky shoes, new drapes, or slowly replacing your cosmetics or kitchenware with eco-friendly varieties.
- Now, choose three concrete actions you will take this week and schedule them into your calendar. Make the time.
- Choose one simple action you will take today before going to bed tonight that affirms the direction you want to develop yourself. This could be buying a how-to book, setting your alarm 30 minutes earlier than usual, or cleaning out your backpack or medicine cabinet.
Why it Works
I’m a social scientist by training and in heart, and I can’t miss the opportunity to wax theory a bit. When eating disorders were first being seriously researched in the early 1980s, one of the earliest discoveries was that they seemed to crop up during significant life transitions. The most common of these tend to be puberty and the year following high school graduation. Subsequently, relapses are most likely to occur after college graduation, once small children are grown, once grown children leave the house, after career changes, after divorces, at retirement, and when people enter assisted living environments.
What’s going? At all of these junctures, people are experiencing fear of an unknown future. When someone is scared of becoming someone with a whole new set of responsibilities and social interactions, what do they do? They become obsessed with trying to reinhabit a smaller, earlier form; and that obsession drives them to take up harmful dieting behaviors that lead to eating disorders. It feels safe and familiar to focus on getting to a desired weight or body size. It’s scary to go away to college. It’s scary to retire. And it’s not at all surprising to me that eating disorders are becoming more of a problem than ever among people who are middle aged and elderly because we live in a society that shuns aging.
By becoming enthusiastic about what lies ahead, we get in touch with personal power again, and this gives us the confidence and momentum to get into action. From a state of feeling even slightly more empowered, mood improves. Eating improves. Life gets fuller, you have new experiences, you take yourself slightly less seriously, and eventually you’re able to access a wider range of problem solving abilities using experimentation, creativity, and fun.
Katherine Thomson, PhD is a medical sociologist in Berkeley, California and has been helping individuals recover from bulimia and other forms of disordered eating, as well as recreate themselves since 2013.
If you want additional help ending bulimia and binge eating disorder, you can download the free Brain over Binge Basics PDF.