Religious fasting after disordered eating recovery.
Just a reminder: For those who have an active eating disorder, disordered eating, or are in the middle of recovery from either of those things, you should avoid any type of fasting. Do not fast from food if that is you. The eating disorder part of your brain can take something good (a spiritual discipline) and distort it. I know recovery is slow. Inconveniently slow sometimes, but be patient. And for all others reading this, prior to engaging in a religious fast talk to your medical provider to address the uniqueness of you.
Podcast version of this post is located here.
Purpose of fasting
John Piper says the idea of fasting is to “add longing for the not yet of the Kingdom. When the bridegroom is taken away and when there is an ache in the heart of Gods people, fasting is a physical exclamation point at the end of the sentence: “I need you! I want you! I long for you!” The heart of it is longing. It can give added intensity and expressiveness to our ache for Jesus.” My pastor recently said something similar, that in a fast our longing for food parallels our longing for Christ. In a fast our desire for intimacy with Christ is greater than our desire for food. Our need for God (intake of the Father), is greater than our need for intake of food. When I read all this or hear good sermons on fasting I’m usually like, “sign me up! This sounds like what I want in my life!!” Then I pause. Consider it. Discuss with Andrew. Prayerfully consider it. And so far I I haven’t chosen to partake in religious fasting since recovery. The restriction. The low blood sugar that triggers migraines, which leads to vision loss. Eating consistently for me and eating all foods (permission to feed myself!) has removed an idol from my life and brought me closer to God. As I said in a past post, the biggest barrier to having a relationship with God was having a false view of what being a good steward of my body is. Still to this day it’s easy for my brain and body to confuse the restriction of a fast (good!), with the restriction of an eating disorder (bad!). Even if the intention behind these things is remarkably different.
I did sign up for Revelation Wellness’s Sugar Fast at the beginning of 2021, as a way to glimpse into the content and see what it brought up for me more than participate in it and I found it extremely problematic. I tend to not be a fan of Revelation Wellness, however Jess Connolly (who I like learning from) collaborated with them a while back so RW was back on my radar. The overall tone I got from the RW Fast was that, “fasting grows you closer to Christ, but sugar is bad and should be avoided anyways and there are so many benefits to eliminating sugar, so let’s eliminate sugar.” It was an intermingling of a spiritual discipline with diet culture and I found it very confusing and there was an element of you will receive spiritual benefits from doing this…but wait, there’s more!! You’ll also be getting physically more healthy if you fast from sugar (something that is not true for those who have a disordered relationship with food…elimination of sugar will make you more preoccupied with food. Can food become an idol? Yes. Can restriction from food and dieting become an idol? Yes. Intuitive Eating and the critical thinking and discernment it encourages you into when it comes to your relationship with food supports you in moving forward wisely. Back to RW Sugar Fast…I stopped reading it after a few day because I really disliked the message.
Sometimes I do feel like I’m missing out on a spiritual discipline and that makes me sad. Currently I’m reading Gentle and Lowly and it said, “We do not have a Father who can’t sympathize with our weakness. Christ will never, in your sorrow, not lob down a pep talk from heaven. God, in your weakness, is with you.” I’ve also been wrestling lately with how there is nothing I can do that will disappoint Christ. A lot of my struggles in motherhood can be linked back to feeling like the decisions I’m making are disappointing God. The other day while talking to God I said, “God, can you forgive me for putting my girls in full-time school?” It shocked me. That wasn’t really a conscious thought I’d been thinking…so that’s given me plenty to explore in therapy. Shifting back to religious fasting, I do not believe that by me not fasting God is disappointed in me. Like Sarah mentioned in the podcast episode, “I don’t need to justify me to me. I am justified and made righteous in Christ.”
There are clinicians in the ED recovery space who speak well about religious fasting post eating disorder. One is Emily Fonnesbeck who mentioned on Instagram (and this is paraphrased) that, “when you have the thought of religious fasting post recovery you’re dealing with competing values. You value religious practices and value your recovery. In time, you can value both.” Here’s a link to my favorite values assignment.
Let’s get into your experiences with religious fasting. I surveyed some of you with a few questions on religious fasting (if you’d like to share your experience as well, please share in the comments section). Here is some feedback I received from you guys when asked about religious fasting. I want to be clear that the majority of the readers who completed the survey have chosen to not fast after an eating disorder or had negative experiences after fasting. I’m sharing both sides (positive and negative experiences from fasting post ED), but the majority of those who filled out the survey said fasting is not a practice they engage in post ED:
Experiences from those choosing not to fast after eating disorder recovery
- Rebekah said: “I feel a lot of peace about not fasting from food. I think for the individual who has or is currently struggling with an eating disorder, fasting food only fuels the problem. If the point of fasting is greater dependency on God, the person in recovery or maintaining recovery has to depend on the Lord to eat. It’s the opposite as those fasting from food! To the intuitive eater, eating is a choice to trust in God and the way He designed our bodies. When I fuel my body, I’m choosing to put my trust in God as Creator and not in myself and what I think my body is supposed to look like. I recently did a 30 day fast from makeup and it taught me so much about where my identity comes from and letting people see the real, imperfect me. I’ve never felt freer and now when I wear makeup it’s because I want to not because I have to in order to feel okay about myself or worthy to be seen.”
- Danielle said, “My husband and I decided it would be hard for me to participate in this spiritual discipline in a way that honors God. I think fasting from food might be tainted with desires to lose weight. It also might trigger restrictive behaviors going forward. I just think, at least at this point, it would still be hard to do it with pure motives. A verse that comes to mind is 1 Corinthians 6:12 “All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything. I have fasted from media in order to seek the Lord, His will and be more prayerful and that went great.”
- Another reader said, “I have decided not to participate in religious fasts once beginning my recovery from anorexia after starting one once – I tried once and it was too hard for me to separate the “why” behind the fast once I started it. For example, even though I chose to do it from a religious place, once I was fasting a lot of the positive mental/emotional hits I used my anorexia to get came back. It wasn’t clear to me that I was doing it to grow closer to God as opposed to reasserting control back over parts of my life > the exact opposite of the real purpose of the fast. I actually remember thinking, “oh ok, so I can still do this if I want to go back to it.” After that first time, the decision not to do it again was a little hard – I recall thinking that if I was better at recovery I would be strong enough to be able to fast. But now I realize that that’s not a helpful way of looking at it and God doesn’t actually care if I don’t fast if it doesn’t serve me or my relationship with Him.
- Esther said, “I have deliberately not fasted from food since recovering from my eating disorder, for two main reasons. Firstly, my motivation to do so is often warped and ends up entangled with a desire either to change my body or feel virtuous for how I’m eating. Secondly, when I deprive myself of food in any way, my body quickly rebels by triggering a “binge”, which feels stressful and chaotic. As a commited Christian, I do want to honour God and walk closely with him, and I do believe that fasting can be ONE way of doing that. But I also know that God has grace and love for me in my weakness, so I don’t feel like I have to fast from food in order to be a good Christian. In churches that serve wine at communion, there’s usually an alcohol-free option for those who need it for whatever reason (eg, alcoholism, health), so I see me choosing not to fast from food a little like that. One lent, I tried to fast from caffeine but my motivation was still very legalistic and I only lasted a week. For now, I regularly try to “fast” from technology (eg, turning my phone off for a few hours on the weekend) but I don’t plan to do anything official like Lent until I’m clear that the motivation is to be closer to God and not to test my own self-control or feel virtuous, and I would probably never consider it appropriate to fast from food.”
- Ashley S. shared, “I fasted one time since recovering from disordered eating and overexercising. I decided to try skipping lunch but it was filled with anxiety and actually led me away from praying for my kids on their first day of school because I was preoccupied with trying to not think about food/restriction and my past experiences with fasting which in some way have left me with PTSD feelings. I’ve decided since then to forego fasting because there is no peace involved, and I have been trying to rely on grace and the gospel instead of earning or proving that I love God enough to give up eating. I desire ways to enjoy praying and spending time with God. Fasting seems to push me away from that goal. I’ve also decided not to fast from things outside of food. I’m sure this could be helpful to many but I am going for a more balanced approach to faith instead of all or nothing.”
- Sarah (who was on the podcast version of this post) shared, “Yes, I have done a religious fast from food since recovering from my eating disorder. I developed anorexia in high school, which went undiagnosed until I entered therapy at 30. I had messily recovered in my 20s but without the language to understand what had happened. For many years after recovering, I chose not to fast because I knew that it would be highly triggering based on my past experience. After many years of recovery and 4 years of therapy, I decided to try a partial fast (not a full day) with my church community. Because I felt so fully recovered and had been so for many years, it was shocking to me how triggering the experience was. There were thoughts and feelings that came up just in that one day that I had not experienced for years and felt eerily similar to the times when I was deepest in my eating disorder. Based on that experience, I have made the decision that fasting is not a wise or safe choice for me. I may abstain from other things for a time, but I don’t call it a “fast” as I think fasting is a very specific action specifically related to food.”
- Lindsay said, “No. I choose not to fast. No matter how healthy and recovered I feel, I’ve noticed that being deprived of food triggers disordered behaviors—even if its something innocent like losing my appetite for a few days while I have the flu.”
Far fewer of you, but some of you(!), have had positive experiences fasting, so I wanted to share some takeaways from those ladies below.
Experiences from those who have chosen to fast after eating disorder recovery
- Cassidy said that religious fasting has been a good experience for her. She said, “Mentally and physically, fasting is a good reminder of how terrible it feels to not be nourished adequately (less focused brain, feeling cold/fatigued/tired), and that helps to solidify my resolve to continue the behaviors that keep me recovered. Spiritually, it is also a good experience because feeling less than ideal physically and mentally helps me to remember that as a human I have ultimately been designed to fully depend on God. Fasting is a tangible way to feel the absence of a human need which creates space to offer my suffering up for the salvation of souls and invite God in to fill me instead. I will do it again. However, there are important nuances to be considered each time I choose to fast. First, it I were to fast because my true motive is to lose weight or indulge in ED behaviors, this would be counter to the reasons God desires me to fast, and it would actually be more productive spiritually (i.e. a greater sacrifice) for me to eat normally. Thus, true motives for fasting always need to be considered. Second, the quantity of food that will qualify as “fasting” may change from year to year depending on my lifestyle/activity level and what amount of food is normally adequate for me at that time in my life. And third, depending on my life stage/health (e.g. pregnancy, lactation, illness (including active EDs), >59 yrs old) I may be obligated NOT to fast from food as it would be imprudent for myself and/or the child in my womb.”
- Betsy said, “Yes. I struggled with body image issues through college and at times would restrict my intake out of fear of weight gain. Approval of others has been a long time idol in my life, it just shows up in different ways now than it did in college. Since truly coming to Christ and doing deep soul work through my separation and divorce, I decided to practice the discipline of fasting. I decided to fast on Tuesdays, after lunch/afternoon snack until breakfast the next morning. I did this for about a month. I chose this night because it was it was the evening I would attend my DivorceCare support group/class, and being in a place of such deep pain and brokenness, it truly was a cry to the Lord for sustenance. To me, it was an act of humility, saying “God, I need you more than I need anything else, including food. The hunger I feel is a reminder of my dependence on you.” And rather than being “fed” with food, I was fed with the Word, prayer, and a community of believers. I was praying very specifically for my daughter’s relationship with her father, and for maturity and wisdom to act in a way that would honor God toward him, after I had been so hurt by his actions. A month after doing this on Tuesdays, God answered my prayer in a very tangible way, and I believe that blessing came from the shift in the posture of my heart, not just the act of choosing to fast/abstain from food and check a box of the spiritual discipline.”
- Rachel said, “Yes I have. It took a long time to get to that place- lots of sermons/podcasts to help guide me. Praying that my intentions weren’t seeking to alter my body size but draw nearer to the Lord. Before I got to the place of fasting food, I fasted social media/entertainment (tv, Netflix, etc.) It was an awesome experience and very helpful in removing distraction. I started food fasting with one meal. Then moved to fasting from dinner the night before to dinner the next night (usually like 22 hours.) There have been times where I got to a point earlier where I just had a snack and I felt peace about that. God knows me heart and where I’m at. I’ve only fasted food a few times- recently my church was doing a 21 day prayer fast but I wasn’t ready to fast from food for 21 days. So I decided to fast from social media / entertainment for those 21 days then fast from food 1x a week for the 21 days. I definitely felt a conviction to fast from food because Jesus talks about it like “when you fast…” but I also know there’s lots of grace in the healing journey from disordered eating.”
- C said, “I was very hesitant to fast during my eating disorder, as well as after recovery. After praying about it and seeking insight from trusted spiritual counselors, I decided to incorporate one day a month to fast (as well as participating in fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday). For the first couple of months, and even sometimes still, I would become anxious leading up to the day. I mentally crafted a list of reasons not to fast. On the actual days of fasting, however, I felt like God poured out graces and was so gentle with me. Fasting has become a huge avenue of healing, as I surrender control of my eating patterns and trust in the Father to provide for my needs. As I mentioned in the previous question, the days that I fast still allow for eating 3 times a day. I eat less on these days compared to a normal day, which is definitely mentally and physically challenging, but I feel that my body is still nourished. Fasting has increased my appreciation for food that is available in any given situation, rather than being set on eating in a certain way.”
- Sarah, “I have fasted from certain foods for a period of time when I felt that they were gaining too much power over me, and/or I wanted to see what would happen. I have also fasted from certain foods for Lent, to remind me of Jesus’ sacrifice for me, and to increase the celebration of Easter. I have also fasted from media, social media, and radio for Lent to again help me focus on the season. I did the food fasts for Lent several years after fasting from non-food items. I fasted from food groups, in part because of social pressure, but also out of curiosity and a desire to practice self-discipline.”
If you don’t normally listen to the podcast episode, this episode is worth listening to. Two blog readers, Sarah and Cassidy, offered to come on the podcast to share their experience with religious fasting after an eating disorder. My hope is that conversations with these women offers more to the conversation in your head and gives some direction as to if religious fasting would be appropriate and spiritually fruitful for you.