Cultural or Religious Fasting and Eating Disorders
Many religions engage in fasting as part of their practices, such as in the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, the Christian season of Lent, or the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur. These practices are not harmful in themselves, but can be triggering to people at risk of an eating disorder, in the stages of an eating disorder, or in recovery, and may intensify and accelerate eating disorder symptoms.
If you or someone you know is in this category, it may be useful to consider the following before engaging in a cultural or religious fast:
- Most religions believe that you should not fast if you are not healthy enough to do so. This includes mental health concerns or eating disorder issues. Across the religions, fasting is often about becoming closer to your God(s), or refocussing your mind on spirituality. Ask yourself if fasting at this stage in your life will bring you closer to your God(s) or instead put your mental and physical health at risk?
- There may be other ways you can observe your religious practice without fasting, such as a non-food ‘fast’, extra prayer, or giving back to the community. Think critically about what the purpose of fasting is, and whether it can be achieved through other actions. You may like to discuss this with your health practitioner or religious leader for advice or guidance.
Churches have some variation in how they participate in Lent, but ultimately the rationale is to challenge yourself to become closer to God. Remember, you are not expected to fast if this is a health risk. If you have an eating disorder or are in recovery, the biggest challenge might be to not give in to the pressure to fast, and to seek God’s guidance through this time.
If you’d still like to fast in another way, you can consider the following:
- Fasting from media and/or technology.
- Fasting from negative self-talk, or from comparing your body with others.
- Think of something you tend to buy in excess of your needs. Give up buying these during Lent, and donate the money you would have spent to a charity you care about.
Remember Lent isn’t all about fasting. You can still participate in prayer and almsgiving. Instead of giving something up for Lent, consider taking something on. This could be community service, extra prayer, or donating to charity.
If you decide that fasting from food is important to your relationship with God, it’s recommended that you speak with your health professional and religious leader for support and guidance during this time.
In Islam, you are excused from fasting if you are suffering from a health condition.
Ibn Qudaamah (may Allah have mercy on him) said in al-Mughni (4/403):
“The kind of sickness in which it is permitted to break the fast is intense sickness which will be made worse by fasting or it is feared that recovery will be delayed.”
“The healthy person who fears that he may become sick if he fasts is like the sick person who fears that his sickness may get worse, they are both permitted to break their fasts.”
This could be interpreted to mean that if you are recovered (healthy), but fear fasting would cause you to relapse, this is valid reason not to fast. If you do not fast, you instead pay Fidya to feed someone for each day you do not fast.
Whether or not you decide you are healthy enough to fast, Ramadan may still be a very challenging time as your community’s behaviours are centred around fasting. It’s a good idea to set up create a supportive environment around you during this time.
Remember that in Ramadan, a person abstains from food not because the food offered up is bad, but because it is good. It is a way of resisting what is good for you so that you are also able to resist what is bad. However, if resisting the goodness of food leads you towards harmful behaviours or negative feelings, this denies the purpose of Ramadan.
You can still participate in Ramadan other ways. Ramadan is also about restraining anger, doing good deeds, exercising personal discipline, and preparing oneself to serve as a good Muslim and a good person.
For many in the Jewish community, fasting is an important and difficult spiritual exercise, reminding them of their attachment to the physical, and helping them focus on teshuvah and spiritual growth.
For individuals who have an eating disorder or are in recovery, eating on Yom Kippur can actually be a holy act. Rather than finding ‘purity’ or ‘spiritual growth’ through denying yourself food, the act of eating itself can be an act of teshuvah.
Before eating or drinking, you can offer a small thought, or kavanah (intention), and the traditional blessing over that item.
In Hinduism there are a diverse range of fasting practices which depend on factors such as personal beliefs, local customs and preferred deities. Consider carefully whether fasting will help you refocus your spirituality and lead you towards peace, or if it may cause health difficulties at this time in your life and lead to spiritual conflict. There are also ongoing dietary practices that many Hindus follow which you may find difficult during recovery. You may like to work collaboratively with a dietician to create a meal plan which leads you towards recovery while maintaining your spirituality.
Cultural Fasting and Eating Disorders: Akgul, Derman & Kanbur, 2014
- Last revision date: Tuesday, 17 March 2015 13:04