Is Intermittent Fasting an Eating Disorder?

Nearly one quarter (24 percent) of Americans say they’ve tried intermittent fasting (IF for short).

Many people swear by this trendy diet, but others have expressed concerns that it’s merely a rebrand of an eating disorder.

This post breaks down the definition of intermittent fasting and explains how it resembles and differs from an eating disorder. We also share some guidance on who should try IF and who should avoid it. 

What Is Intermittent Fasting?

Intermittent fasting, or IF, involves fasting (going without food) for a set number of hours and then eating all your calories during another specific period (sometimes called a “feeding window” or “eating window”). Many people practice 16/8 intermittent fasting, where they fast for 16 hours and then eat during an 8-hour period.

Most people who practice intermittent fasting do it to lose weight. By restricting their eating to a set window, they find it easier to limit their calorie intake.

Others say they practice IF for health benefits. Some limited research suggests that IF may help to reduce inflammation. However, these claims are often overblown by proponents of intermittent fasting.

Studies also show the weight loss benefits of IF are not as impressive as some would have you believe.

Is Intermittent Fasting Classified as an Eating Disorder?

A person practicing intermittent fasting does not automatically qualify as someone who has an eating disorder. However, there is a lot of overlap between IF and eating disorders like anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder.

IF and Anorexia

The relationship between intermittent fasting and anorexia nervosa is relatively straightforward. People who practice IF go extended periods without eating, as do people with anorexia. 

In theory, intermittent fasters will eat enough calories to sustain their bodies during their feeding window. However, that’s not always the case.

Some people restrict calories significantly even during their feeding window, resembling the restrictions people with anorexia practice.

IF and Bulimia

Some intermittent fasters’ behavior might also mimic the behavior of someone with bulimia nervosa.

Someone who practices intermittent fasting might overeat during the feeding window after restricting for an extended period. Then, they may engage in purging behaviors (inducing vomiting, abusing laxatives, or even overexercising) to “make up” for the extra calories consumed.

IF and Binge Eating Disorder

Similarly, intermittent fasting may worsen the symptoms of those dealing with binge eating disorders.

Because they avoid consuming calories during their fasting window, they’re so hungry that they binge eat during their feeding window. This behavior creates a vicious cycle of restricting and overeating.

Intention and Mindset Matter

When does intermittent fasting switch from a simple preference or eating pattern to an eating disorder?

The transition isn’t always obvious or instantaneous. However, it is characterized by a shift in intention and mindset.

Let’s say someone strives to eat as little as possible during their feeding window. Conversely, they might try to make their fasting window extra long or challenge themselves to continue extending it day after day.

Both of these behaviors could be signs of an unhealthy mindset regarding intermittent fasting.

The longer a person practices these unhealthy behaviors, the more likely they will develop an eating disorder or worsen their relationship with food.   

Who Should Avoid Intermittent Fasting?

Some people can practice intermittent fasting without any issues. They fast for a set number of hours, eat a healthy number of calories during their feeding window, and never experience an unhealthy mindset.

For others, intermittent fasting can be a gateway to extreme restriction and other harmful behaviors.

Here are some signs that you might fall into the latter group or should avoid intermittent fasting for other health reasons:

You Have a History of Disordered Eating

Whether you’ve been diagnosed with an eating disorder in the past or have a history of restricting, bingeing, or purging, steer clear of intermittent fasting.

Those with a history of disordered eating will likely struggle more than the average person to maintain a healthy mindset around IF. They may be too rigid or restrictive, increasing their chances of sliding back into eating disorder territory. 

You Have High Caloric Needs

If you’re under the age of 18, are underweight, pregnant, or breastfeeding, intermittent fasting is likely not an ideal practice for you.

Those with high caloric needs often struggle to eat enough when they limit themselves to a shorter eating window. They find they get full too quickly and end up under-eating, which is counterintuitive to their goals and health needs.

You Have Frequent Digestive Issues

If you often struggle with poor digestion and symptoms like bloating, constipation, or gas, intermittent fasting might make things worse.

Eating a lot of food in a short window could aggravate your symptoms. You might be better off eating regularly and more frequently throughout the day instead. 

You Have Diabetes or Blood Sugar Regulation Issues

Those with diabetes or other problems related to blood sugar regulation may worsen their symptoms if they experiment with intermittent fasting. 

Restricting their calories to a particular window may lead to frequent drops in blood sugar and can contribute to other, more severe health issues (especially for diabetics).

Your Job Requires Focus and Attention to Detail

If you’re a student or have a job that requires a lot of focus and attention to detail, intermittent fasting may interfere with your performance. It may be particularly problematic if you also struggle with blood sugar regulation.

Dips in blood sugar can lead to fatigue, irritability, and difficulty concentrating. None of these symptoms are ideal when trying to complete a big project or plan for an important meeting.

Get Eating Disorder Support Today

Simply put, intermittent fasting does not always lead to an eating disorder. However, it can be a slippery slope for people who are already prone to disordered eating behaviors.

The key is intentionality. Furthermore, if you think you might have an eating disorder or an unhealthy relationship with food, it’s never too early to seek help.

Reach out to us at Eating Disorder Solutions through our website, or by phone, for a free consultation call.