I admit that I am not a particularly religious person. While I am ethnically Jewish and was baptized in the Catholic church, my upbringing was not overly observant of either of those faiths. I do, however, have an interest in food and culture with regard to traditions involving the ways varying faiths approach food rules, and this includes religious fasting. As someone who is in recovery for an eating disorder — specifically anorexia nervosa — it dawned on me that the act of religious fasting may be both triggering and inadvisable for someone like myself. When an eating disorder involves any kind of restrictive eating, the very notion of fasting may be downright dangerous in perpetuating the kinds of thinking associated with needing to control one’s body.
As such, I decided to take a look at the ways in which three prominent fasting religious cultures handle the subject of accommodations and exemptions for those with mental health issues related to an eating disorder. I wanted to understand if any exceptions were common and how they were justified. Fasting occurs in Judaism, Islam, and Catholicism and is encouraged as part of the faithful observance of various holidays. The common theme between all of them is a commitment to ritual and a communal sense of sacrifice that serves as a way of bonding members of the faith together. While this is vital to the proliferation of the faith, it does pose a distinct challenge to those attempting to navigate their own personal health with their desire to be a part of their religious community.
If you are struggling with an eating disorder, be mindful of your emotional needs and potential triggers when reading this article. If you need support, you can call or text the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) hotline at (800) 931-2237.
Why religious fasting may be problematic for eating disorder survivors
Before discussing how the various faiths navigate the issue of eating disorders and fasting, it is important to discuss why fasting is problematic for eating disorder survivors. The pervasiveness of eating disorders in society is well documented. According to ANAD (National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders), approximately nine percent of the U.S. population will develop an eating disorder, and eating disorders are considered to be the second deadliest mental health condition behind opioid addiction. Eating disorders are often comorbid with other psychiatric conditions and are common among survivors of various types of trauma, particularly sexual trauma, as per NEDA (National Eating Disorder Association).
From the perspective of healing an eating disorder – particularly restrictive eating disorders like anorexia nervosa – stabilization of weight (where necessary), the establishment of consistent eating habits without over-exercising, and re-learning to recognize hunger cues are key. And this is often accompanied by trauma-informed therapies that seek to address the underlying trigger for the disordered eating. Recovery can take a long time and recurrence of symptoms are not uncommon. In my own experience with anorexia, I tend to have a flare every time I feel a sense of helplessness or lack of control in my life. Focusing on what I eat, when I eat it, how much I eat, what I weigh, and how much I exercise becomes an all-consuming endeavor.
As such, it is of the utmost importance that I closely monitor my triggers and understand when I’m getting sucked back into my disordered behavior. The ritual of food rules that I followed when I was at the height of my anorexia verged on being religious. My devotion to what was considered a “good” versus “bad” food, how long I could go without eating without feeling physically incapable of doing anything, and upholding some kind of ridiculous self-imposed sense of righteousness at being able to stick to these rules was all-encompassing. There wasn’t time or energy for anything else, especially any kind of meaningful self-reflection. This is why the notion of utilizing religion as an excuse to participate in behavior that even remotely mimics the parameters I had established to appease my eating disorder feels incredibly threatening.
Make no mistake, if the point of participating in a religious fasting ritual is to somehow strengthen one’s connection to a deity, someone with an eating disorder likely cannot safely do this in any meaningful way. The only focus for me was myself. I wanted to be superhuman, but not in a spiritual way. I wanted to exist beyond humanity, beyond needs, beyond emotions, and beyond pain. The way I could do this was to numb myself out by avoiding my hunger and by disappearing myself into nothingness. This is antithetical to what religious fasting is intended to achieve in every faith I explored that utilizes this practice in their observance.
Even now that I am “healed” for all intents and purposes, I would hesitate to even dip a toe into any kind of restrictive eating for any reason. Some believe that with careful supervision of a mental health clinician and nutritionist it can be safely done, but I personally disagree. There are other ways to show one’s devotion that won’t jeopardize your physical and emotional well-being in any way. And that is what I wish to explore further.
Judaism: Alternatives to Yom Kippur fasting for those in eating disorder recovery
For Jews, the holiday of Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, involves religious fasting. The idea behind the fast is to look past one’s corporeal needs and to focus that attention upon what is called cheshbon hanafesh or the accounting of one’s soul. According to ReformJudaism.org, this fasting goes beyond food and drink to include wearing leather, bathing and shaving, the application of things like cologne or creams for personal pleasure, and sexual relations. Historically some exclusions for fasting are considered standard, such as children under the age of 13, pregnant or nursing women, and those who are ill for whom the act of fasting may present contraindications for their well-being. But these exceptions do not specify mental illness or eating disorders in particular.
When I interviewed rabbinical student Miriam Hoffman about this, her response was illuminating. She stated, “There’s a concept in rabbinic literature called pikuach nefesh or preservation of the soul. It means that most Halacha (Jewish law) can be broken if it’s to save a life, including your own. This has been expanded in modern commentary to include mental health. So if fasting would bring up trauma, many non-orthodox rabbis would encourage — probably demand — that the person eat. Fasting has also been expanded in recent years for exactly this reason. So, if abstaining from food is impossible for any health reason, rabbis encourage fasting from social media, gossip, sugar, etc. that might still encourage participation in the holiday in the same way.”
Ultimately the point of the holiday is to purify oneself and to focus on self-reflection. If one cannot do so in a meaningful way without bodily, mental, or emotional harm, the tradition itself loses its purpose. In this context, it would follow that at least within non-orthodox Jewish communities, someone who has a complicated relationship with food and their body cannot and should not compromise their healing. They can focus instead on other meaningful types of self-reflection and sacrifice that don’t deprive their bodies of nourishment or reinforce their sense that there is any kind of morality associated with abstinence from consuming food.
Islam: Alternatives to Ramadan fasting for people with eating disorders
Muslims typically fast during the month of Ramadan, which is the holiest month of the Islamic calendar. Not unlike Jews during Yom Kippur, the purpose of the fast is to become closer to Allah (the divine) by exerting control over one’s urges and abstaining from complaining about the hardship endured. The month is intended to be a period of reflection, gratitude for one’s blessings, and a time for renewal. Yet, there are several instances during which observers of Islam are allowed to refrain from religious fasting.
Islamicfinder.org states that those exempt from fasting include children who have not reached puberty, the elderly, women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, women who are menstruating, those who are traveling and for whom fasting would prove to be dangerous or an undue burden, those with physical illness, and those with mental illness. The category of mental illness specifies “Individuals who are mentally challenged or they are victims of any sort of mental illness which affects their cognition,” which may be wildly up to interpretation and doesn’t adequately address the issue of eating disorders specifically. If someone cannot fast due to a valid exemption, Zakat.org specifies that these individuals should “make up the missed day before the following Ramadan (or offer appropriate redemption if fasting is not possible).”
Further complicating the issue of whether or not someone with an eating disorder can or should fast during Ramadan is the fact that the month is one where food plays a central role in gatherings. Not participating for any reason may involve social isolation or intense scrutiny. There can be a deep sense of shame associated with opting out of these gatherings and this makes it even more difficult to reconcile. The key, according to Ghena Ismail, director of the eating disorders program at the American University of Beirut Medical Center in Lebanon, is to practice self-compassion. She reiterates for the LA Times that the Quran expressly states that “part of (a Muslim’s) actual duty toward themselves and toward the relationship to the Creator, that you could not engage in any kind of ritual at the expense of your own health.” In her interpretation, this can and should include those who have eating disorders.
Freedfromed.co.uk offers alternative ways of worshiping that can help fuel that sense of connection and worship of Allah which are not unlike those suggested by rabbinical student Hoffman for Jews opting not to fast during Yom Kippur. These include preparing food for others who are fasting to eat after sunset, reading the Quran or other books to expand one’s knowledge of Islam, engaging in prayer, spending time serving others doing things you enjoy, and donating to charity. They also warn against isolating oneself from others during this time. It is important for these individuals to maintain their sense of community while reinforcing the boundaries necessary for them to remain safe and healthy.
Catholicism: Observing Lent safely if you have/had an eating disorder
During the period of Lent — from Ash Wednesday to Good Friday — Catholics typically abstain from consuming meat on Fridays, although specific rules regarding fasting depend upon the church in question. It is also customary to choose to give up some other pleasure — frequently a food item of some ilk — as a means of repenting and honoring the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross. This period can prove to be an opportunity and temptation for those with disordered eating to hide their symptoms under the guise of religious observation without being noticed, which is what makes it particularly menacing.
The National Catholic Register suggests that someone with disordered eating tendencies begin by asking themselves, “‘Will I be distressed if I am not able to fast?’ Individuals with disordered eating are more likely to answer ‘Yes’ to this question, whereas those who do not have disordered eating are more likely to respond, ‘Not a big deal. I will just find another way to sacrifice and grow closer to God.’” By focusing on the intent behind the desire to fast, one can recognize whether they are in a healthy enough headspace to participate with the true purpose of getting closer to God and not out of some kind of impulse to self-punish or recriminate.
As author and eating disorder survivor Emily Stimpson Chapman continues in the Register, it is critical for someone to identify where they typically turn when they are stressed to find relief other than food. Whether it’s gambling, shopping, or even social media, giving up one of these instead of food is a safer bet and more aligned with the underlying meaning of fasting during Lent. In this capacity, one can participate without triggering or reinforcing unhealthy disordered eating habits. She also stresses relying upon the counsel of the clergy for guidance, although as many of us know, eating disorders thrive in secrecy, and reaching out for help is not something that comes easily.
Conclusion: Finding an understanding faith community as an eating disorder survivor
While rules and regulations are as variable as congregations are plentiful, generally speaking, less conservative religious communities have been capable of integrating guidelines specific to those experiencing eating disorders. They have succeeded in interpreting religious scripture in ways in which mental health is viewed as equally as important as physical health. By this token, forcing someone to participate in a ritual that would necessarily cause them bodily and mental harm would be antithetical to fulfilling the wish of God.
Worshipers with an eating disorder can find solace in recognizing that they are no less capable of or deserving of participating in holiday traditions even if they do so with modifications deemed appropriate. And perhaps the ability to do so can be an opportunity for continued healing of the underlying trauma that might be fueling the disordered eating to begin with. Mental illness cannot thrive without isolation. The presence of a welcoming, safe, and understanding community willing to accommodate someone’s needs without any kind of shame may just be the greatest appeal of being a member of a religious community.
How does your religion or church address religious fasting and eating disorders?
Let us know in the comments.