How Intermittent Fasting Can Lead To Eating Disorders

Intermittent fasting (IF) has become a popular method for weight loss and disease prevention, despite the need for more rigorous research (via Healthline). It's an eating plan characterized by specific periods of fasting followed by designated hours for eating, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. Some people only eat during an eight-hour window during the day, fasting for the other 16 hours. Another approach to IF is to eat regularly for five days of the week, then eat only one meal a day during the other two days. The idea is that when the body goes without food, it will burn its reserves of sugar and begin burning body fat. Some research shows that IF could help improve your memory, improve your blood pressure, prevent obesity, and reduce tissue damage.

But it's not for everyone. Those who have a higher need for calories should avoid IF, according to Cleveland Clinic. Those who are pregnant, at risk for an eating disorder, under the age of 18, at risk for hypoglycemia, or with certain chronic conditions shouldn't try it. It can also cause some undesirable side effects, like irritability, sensitivity to temperature, low energy, and difficulty performing at work and in activities.

Eating disorders linked to intermittent fasting

While there are some studies showing the benefits of IF, long-term studies are lacking (via Healthline). But a 2022 study published in the journal Eating Behaviors has found that IF is linked to disordered eating and other concerning behaviors.

The research from the University of Toronto looked at data from 2,762 Canadian adolescents and young adults, pulled from the Canadian Study of Adolescent Health Behaviors. Researchers discovered that IF was associated with dangerous behaviors such as binge eating, vomiting, compulsive exercise, and laxative use, which are all symptoms of eating disorders. Since research shows that restrictive dieting puts you at serious risk for an eating disorder, the researchers hypothesized that IF might do the same. Adolescents and young adults are especially at risk since the study found that of their participants, 47.7% of women, 38.4% of men, and 52.0% of transgender/gender non-conforming (TGNC) people had experienced IF in the past 12 months.

In general, research shows that dieting of any kind is a risk factor for developing clinically severe eating disorders in the future, and can even predict future weight gain, according to Psychology Today. Before you decide to adopt an IF lifestyle, consult with your doctor.

If you need help with an eating disorder, or know someone who is, help is available. Visit the National Eating Disorders Association website or contact NEDA's Live Helpline at 1-800-931-2237. You can also receive 24/7 Crisis Support via text (send NEDA to 741-741).