x50 (how to fast safely – a religious person’s guide)

Whenever I see a religious person talking about fasting for a specific holiday, my mind wanders to “I can’t fast because it would trigger eating disordered thinking and behavior.” I wrote the following guide to fasting safely and healthfully. While it can apply to any religious person, in particular it is geared toward religious people who currently struggle with or who have struggled with an eating disorder. It provides tips for working through your triggers or avoiding them, and alternatives to fasting. It was written for use in a Catholic setting, but can be adapted for any religious purpose. If you’d like me to adapt it for your specific religion, please contact me and I gladly will. The information and statistics about eating disorders were gathered from NEDA, the National Eating Disorders Association (nationaleatingdisorders.org). The information about trauma triggers was gathered from Wikipedia, and the information about filling foods was gathered from various weight loss and Web MD type websites.


Eating Disorders: What is an eating disorder?

An eating disorder is a complex mental illness that is common – 15% of women in their teens and twenties qualify as anorexic or sub anorexic, and 7% of women have exhibited bulimic behaviors at some point in their life. An eating disorder is not a choice, but instead develops over time due to multiple complex reasons and is frequently found alongside other mental illnesses. Anorexia and bulimia are the most common types, but are not the only ones. A “not otherwise specified” eating disorder includes behaviors such as maintaining a healthy body weight while still retaining anorexic thought patterns, or combining aspects of anorexia and bulimia, such as restricting eating while purging. Eating disorders primarily affect women, but can also plague men as well. Nearly half of all Americans know someone with an eating disorder. Warning signs include teen dieting, and the idea that “anorexic people don’t eat” is false – they simply eat smaller portions, low calorie foods, or strange food combinations. Often times, one cannot tell if someone has an eating disorder by looking at them – eating disorders are easy to hide. Control issues and low self esteem are key elements of an eating disorder that need to be treated. There is hope – you can recover. About half of all people diagnosed with anorexia make a full recovery.

Eating Disorders: My Story

I was diagnosed with a not otherwise specified eating disorder when I was fourteen. My symptoms predated my diagnosis; I started restricting my food and purging when I was thirteen. I began seeing a specialist and a nutritionist after my diagnosis, and my doctors no longer allowed me to look at a scale to determine how much I weighed. As an adult, I looked back at my medical records and discovered that at 5’ 7”, my lowest weight was 111 pounds. According to an adult BMI, this was underweight; however, I was still in the 85th percentile for juvenile weight. The specialist told me that if I were to lose any more weight, she would recommend for me to be hospitalized. Terrified by that prospect – I’d had two psychiatric hospitalizations by that time – I stopped purging and returned to normal eating habits. I’ve had two notable relapses since then, and to a certain extent, I still retain anorexic thinking patterns. My weight tends to fluctuate, and whenever it drops to the low end of the spectrum, I consider restricting my diet and purging so I can reach that elusive goal weight, which I know would continue to drop until I couldn’t stop. I still maintain that I “wasn’t good at being anorexic”, which, ironically, is a classic anorexic thinking pattern. My weight continues to be a constant source of guilt for me. Because of this, I choose not to engage in fasting from food for religious reasons – it’s too much of a trigger for me.

Trigger: What is a trigger?

A trauma trigger is an experience that triggers a traumatic memory in someone who has experienced trauma. A trigger is thus a troubling reminder of a traumatic event, although the trigger itself need not be frightening or traumatic.

Psychological trauma is a type of damage to the psyche that occurs as a result of a severely distressing event. A traumatic event involves a single experience, or an enduring or repeating event or events, that completely overwhelm the individual’s ability to cope or integrate the ideas and emotions involved with that experience. The sense of being overwhelmed can be delayed by weeks, years or even decades, as the person struggles to cope with the immediate circumstances.

Basically, this means that if something has made you severely uncomfortable in the past, something that’s currently going on that reminds you of that disturbingly uncomfortable event is called a trigger. It’s difficult to control triggers, so you may be able to safely fast for years and then suddenly the fasting triggers memories or emotions associated with the eating disorder you struggled with as an adolescent. In this specific case, while dealing with an eating disorder being the trigger, a trigger may simply mean that while fasting, you are moved to return to unhealthy eating habits.

There are two ways to overcome triggers: one way is to avoid the trigger – in this case, avoiding restricting food in a way that could mimic eating disorder behavior – or to challenge the trigger head on and work through it until it is no longer a trigger. This can sometimes be a scary approach, so make sure you have the supports in place that you need to process the trigger of restricting food to make sure you don’t slip back into eating disordered behavior. Keeping a food journal can be helpful here. Things to record in your food journal should include what you’ve eaten, the time you’ve eaten it, the room you ate it in, how you were feeling when you were eating, whether or not you were hungry and whether or not you ate until you were full, and if you ended up purging the food purposefully afterward. You may want to not include certain things I’ve mentioned or include other things depending on the nature of your eating disorder or personal eating habits. Making sure you have a therapist and maybe even a dietician on hand to discuss what it feels like to fast and what it feels like to return to normal eating habits after a fast are a great way to make sure you have supports in place. NEDA, the National Eating Disorders Association, can be found at nationaleatingdisorders.org and offer some great resources, including a helpline that operates during business hours where you can talk through your trigger and process some of your emotions.

Fasting: What Food is Allowed?

“Fasting as explained by the U.S. Bishops means partaking in one full meal. Small amounts of food not equating to one full meal are permitted in the morning and at either midday or evening, depending on when the full meal is taken.”

The two days that require fasting are Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Abstinence from eating meat is also required on those two days, as well as every Friday during Lent.

Eating nutritious foods that are also filling is a great way to make fasting easier and healthier on your body. For the small amounts of food to be eaten in the morning or at midday or evening, things like sweet prunes, veggies with peanut butter or a hummus or other filling dip, fresh fruits that are high in fiber, Greek yogurt, a small bowl of oatmeal, cheese and crackers, popcorn, and various nuts and seeds are great, filling, nutritious foods. For your meal, you might want to think about including things such as a potato with its skin left on, beans and other legumes (especially on Fridays when you can’t eat meat), lean proteins (fish is included in this group, something else which would work on Friday), and high fiber vegetables, which should be eaten first before the rest of your food. Ensuring that the grains you eat are whole grains is another great way to up your nutritional value and feelings of fullness.

Fasting: It’s Not Just About Food

Every time we partake in the Eucharist, Jesus dwells in us, in our hearts. A church is not a building – a church is a group of people who gather to worship. We are the church, and we are the temple of the Lord. We must take care of this temple in honor of Jesus.

Fasting during Lent doesn’t have to mean abstaining from food. It can also mean abstaining from things that prohibit spiritual growth. For example, take a page from the cardinal sins – fast from anger, greed, laziness, pride, desiring things you know you shouldn’t, or envy. The last cardinal sin is gluttony, and if abstaining from eating is triggering for you, try this take: incorporate more healthful foods into your diet, like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Also try fasting from impatience, selfishness, or self-righteousness. Maybe for you, fasting from things that prohibit spiritual growth could include a day of being unplugged from things like the computer, your phone, the internet, and television, and instead spending your time focusing on your family or strengthening your faith through prayer and scripture reading. Going to mass more often during Lent and praying and reading scripture daily are ways to take this sentiment and make it flow throughout the entire Lenten season. If you already pray every day, maybe you could try increasing your daily prayer time, and remember that prayer isn’t just talking to God – it’s listening, too. Try incorporating meditation into your prayer routine – this can also really help with stress and give you some time to process your day. Going to confession more often is also a great Lenten practice that can be adopted instead of fasting.

Two important things to remember during Lent are:
“I am a child of God. I am His holy temple, and He lives in me.”
“I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me.”
Maybe for you, Lent isn’t so much about taking away as it is adding. Adding an exercise routine – even something as simple as taking a walk after dinner – and focusing on a more healthful diet can be great ways to take care of the temple God has given you. Daily affirmations can also be helpful in realizing your potential as God’s child. “Affirmation is more than words. It is a validation of the beauty and presence of God dwelling in you.” Reciting a daily affirmation out loud is the best way to drive home the message. Something as simple as “I am beautiful, I am strong, and God loves me” recited out loud three times daily can help improve your self-esteem. I do this daily, and I find it to be helpful in the healing process that comes with recovery from an eating disorder.

Most importantly, remember that God and Jesus will forgive you, so learn to forgive yourself. Every moment we experience is a fantastic chance to start again. You are more than capable of putting your past behind you and beginning a spiritually and physically healing journey – you just have to want to.

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