BINGE EATING + INTERMITTENT FASTING
Updated: Feb 14
Intermittent Fasting seems like a great idea, right? Eat between certain hours and guarantee the body of your dreams.
But what if you find yourself binging inside or outside this time frame?
Intermittent Fasting makes you binge eat, because it’s just like every other diet. You might be thinking: “Intermittent Fasting isn’t a diet! It’s a science-backed way of eating!”
Here’s the thing: intermittent Fasting has only a tiny amount of research. And it’s not appropriate for people with a tough relationship to food.
As for not it being a diet…
Intermittent Fasting might not be packaged and marketed like one. But, a very big piece of it’s marketing is weight loss and so-called health gain.
In this article, we dive into what Intermittent intermittent fasting is, why it’s a diet in disguise, why it might be causing you to binge and how you can start to prevent this.
What is Intermittent Fasting?
Intermittent Fasting is a style of eating where you fast for a period of time before an allotted eating window. This often occurs in a cyclical manner whether it’s over the course of 24 hours, a week or longer. So you go through cycles of fasting/eating.
Some examples of some intermittent fasting diets you might have heard of include:
The 5:2 diet: strict calorie-controlled diets 5 days a week and 2 days eating whatever you want – sometimes called ‘cheat days’
The 6:1 diet: a 24 hour fast one day each week, the other days eat what you want or calorie controlled
Alternate day fasting: 24 hour fasts or a severely reduced intake every other day, on non-fasting/reduced days eat as ‘normal’
Time restricted feeding: windows of eating and fasting e.g., 16:8 whereby you fast for 16 hours before eating for 8.
Spontaneous meal skipping: randomly skipping meals (on purpose not because you forgot).
And this isn’t even all of them…
Is fasting good for you?
We all fast naturally - hence why we have breakfast in the morning: to break our nightly fast.
What benefits does "fasting" bring?
Recycling of cells - overnight our cells break down and are either disposed of, or used to create new cells.
Reduced inflammation - cells that cause inflammation (your immune cells reacting to infection) go into a sort of ‘sleep mode’ when you fast.
Helping gut bacteria - fasting gives your good bacteria a chance to grow, before they have to deal with the foods we eat. Although this varies person by person.
It helps your brain form new connections - through increased release of a factor that helps you make new neurons and connections.
However, all benefits should be taken with a pinch of salt. A lot of studies into fasting and its benefits tend to be on cells. And individual cells can’t 100% show what effects would be in a human made of many cell types.
A lot of proof may be anecdotal, your favourite influencer claims to feel better and be more productive.
But that might not be the case for you. In some studies fasting increased the body’s stress response, caused low mood and meant the immune system was weaker.
Because it’s not just about the fasting window but what you eat when you’re not fasting.
Some other factors that affect how fasting affects your body:
Are you restricting the rest of the time? When you’re not fasting are you eating a calorie controlled diet which is still very restrictive. This might be what causes binging before fasting again.
What food are you eating? Eating food that you’ve been told is ‘good’ or ‘healthy’ when not fasting might seem like a great idea but if you’re not satisfied it may lead to cravings. And a whole 8 hours fasting while craving a certain food might lead to a binge.
Are you fasting after a binge? Rebounding after a binge eating episode can just launch you back into the binge-restrict cycle meaning another binge is inevitable.
But what if I don’t feel hungry in the morning?
Intermittent Fasting might appeal to you as you’re not naturally hungry in the morning. So, a "feeding window" in the afternoon might seem ideal. Side note: A feeding window to us sounds so..... strange.
But even if we don’t feel hungry in the morning, we’ve started using energy in getting up, breathing, thinking, moving… the list goes on. And it all required energy. Energy that comes from food.
Some options for when you don’t feel hungry in the morning:
· Jam on a slice of toast
· Fruit and yoghurt
· A smoothie
· And ensure you drink plenty of water
How to know if Intermittent Fasting is a diet:
If you want to know if Intermittent Fasting is a diet for you, ask yourself these questions:
Am I using this as a reason to restrict / cut my calories?
Do I want to skip breakfast and am telling myself I’m not hungry?
Do I tend to get super hungry just before lunchtime?
Do I get headaches in the morning if I don’t eat?
Do I feel guilty if I eat breakfast, or eat outside when I think I should be eating?
Sometimes we start to engage in patterns we don’t even realise. If we’re told cutting out breakfast cuts out calories, we may convince ourselves we’re not hungry until lunch, but we feel tired / get brain fog. Is your body telling you it’s hungry?
And if you’re 1000% sure you don’t want breakfast that’s fine. Maybe you plan for a bigger lunch, or more snack foods later in the day. As long as we are not approaching our meals from a place of restriction. If however, you’re Intermittent Fasting you may find yourself binging at lunchtime. Or just before / after the end of the ‘feeding window’.
Why does Intermittent Fasting cause binging?
Here are some reasons you may find yourself binging. Binging here means overeating in a short time period with feelings of guilt and shame over what you’ve eaten.
1. You’re starving
You’re just not eating enough for what you’re putting your body through.
2. You’re telling yourself you can’t have food
It’s like telling yourself not to press the big red button. Now your body wants food, and feels it needs a lot of it.
3. You’re ignoring your hunger and satiety cues
The more you practice this the less in tune you’ll be meaning you won’t know when you’re full and will overeat.
4. You’re creating a sense of scarcity and / or urgency around food
If you can’t get enough food, you’ll want to eat as much as possible to stockpile it – this instinct comes from our ancestors.
5. You might be becoming preoccupied with food
Watching the clock until it’s time to break your fast? Food might be all you can think about, meaning when you can eat you binge.
This is a classic example of restricting your body from something causing you to want it more. And as with any diet, binging will make you feel like a failure and start the binge-restrict cycle.
What does the science say?: An overview
Fasting has been seen as a predictor of binge eating disorder, bulimia nervosa and subclinical purging disorder.. In the 2021 study it was linked with higher scores on a questionnaire testing for eating disorders – if people fasted, they were scoring higher and a third even scored high enough to be diagnosed with an eating disorder.
Eating Disorder professionals using the DSM-5 to diagnose someone with an eating disorder. It outlines clinical symptoms that define a particular eating disorder. It mentions fasting as an “inappropriate compensatory behaviour” – just like purging, excessive exercising or laxative abuse.
But we often think of fasting as not as bad as those other things – why? Fasting can be seen as forced starvation.
What is the difference between fasting and anorexia?
Fasting is considered a mechanism of anorexia and can increase someone’s risk for developing an eating disorder. It may be easy to start fasting and end up enduring a period of starvation.
Some signs of anorexia nervosa that may be included in Intermittent Fasting:
1. Being ritualistic around food
2. Having strict rules around food
3. Avoiding eating social / social isolation – does your ‘fasting’ period include social hours?
4. Intense anxiety around food and eating – do you obsess over hours you should be fasting vs. eating
5. Preoccupation with food to the point of obsession – as we think about the food we’ll eat when breaking the fast.
An important factor to consider is why are you fasting? Is it to lose weight / affect your body weight? This might mean fasting acts as a stepping stone to other restrictive behaviours.
Some common questions relating to anorexia and fasting:
1. How many calories is considered starvation? This might vary depending on your gender, height, weight, age etc. but any intake below what your body needs as a minimum can be considered starvation (this is normally around 1000 calories for women and 12000 for men but varies. Hardcore dieters will argue 200-600 calories is starvation and they can survive on just above this.
2. Is eating one meal a day a disorder? What is your motivation for eating one meal a day? If you’re super super super busy then maybe one meal a day works for you (although no one is this busy) but if it’s to control your intake, your body weight or because you’re ashamed of how you look / eat.
3. Where is the line between fasting and eating disorder? That requires you to self-reflect, and maybe enlist a professional to help you look at your eating behaviours.
Will Intermittent Fasting cure my Binge Eating / Binge Eating Disorder?
For many it seems appealing to only eat between set hours, because you’ll eat less and be less likely to binge right? Unfortunately, not.
Food becomes scarce, and you have a shorter time period to eat it all. A recipe for a binging episode. And you tell yourself it’ll be ‘healthy food’ when you’re finished fasting. But then you just get so hungry during your starvation you can’t help it. And then the shame comes, and the guilt. So, you might as well keep eating, you’ll starve later or tomorrow.
You’re not alone in feeling this. Many people binge when fasting intermittently. The protocol failed you, you didn’t fail it. It wasn’t designed for your body. For your busy life.
In Binge Eating / Binge Eating Disorder recovery you need more food not less. More food to ensure you’re satiated and know when to stop eating. More food so it’s not scarce and forbidden, but merely a part of your life.
So, what do I do instead?
Work on moving away from a place of restriction. Maybe you start working on your relationship with food and work on intuitive eating.
· Stice et al 2008 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2850570/
· Stice et al 2017 https://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Fabn0000219
· Cuccolo et al 2021 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34191688/
· “Extreme fasting: how Silicon Valley is rebranding eating disorders” - https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2019/feb/21/extreme-fasting-how-silicon-valley-is-rebranding-eating-disorders