Fasting and Eating Disorders

In a recent podcast episode, I spoke with Conor Berry on the topic of fasting. You can listen to that episode here: The Purpose and Power of Fasting

In response to that episode, we received a few follow-up questions. 

Conor and I sat down to discuss some of these more nuanced points on the topic of fasting. You can hear the recording of our conversation here (or in the embedded player below), but here is one of the questions we received:

If someone has an eating disorder, can they still fast?

First of all, if you suspect you may be struggling with an eating disorder and need someone to talk to, please contact the Eating Disorders Helpline, where you can chat, call, or text with someone who can help.

A Few Facts About Eating Disorders

According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA),

Eating disorders are serious but treatable mental and physical illnesses that can affect people of all genders, ages, races, religions, ethnicities, sexual orientations, body shapes, and weights. National surveys estimate that 20 million women and 10 million men in America will have an eating disorder at some point in their lives.

Eating disorders are serious, potentially life threatening conditions that can affect every organ system in the body. They are not fads or phases, and can have serious consequences for health, productivity, and relationships.

Please seek help if you or someone you care about is struggling in this area.

Can someone who has struggled with eating disorders participate in fasting?

Nick: I think that’s a really good question. What if your church is doing an all-church fast? Should we tell those who have a history of eating disorders, “Sorry, you can’t participate in this spiritual exercise and in the graces that might come through it”?

Conor: This is a very serious topic and it would be honest to say that it’s probably happening more in our own churches than we realize – whether it’s anorexia nervosa, or bulimia, because it’s often shrouded in secrecy by the person dealing with it.

Eating disorders tend to be connected with a feeling of shame concerning body image, or identity. It is definitely a heavy subject that is applicable to the subject of fasting because we’re talking about food.

What I would suggest is that we should seek to always have a healthy relationship between congregation and pastor, and an understanding of the Imago Dei, which means that we are created in the image of God. It is important to understand that our bodies were created by God and he declared them to be good, and therefore God sees you as his beautiful creation, who has so much value.

Recommendations

Conor: If someone were to come into my office after I gave a call to corporate fasting, and said, “Hey, I’m dealing with this now,” or maybe “I’ve dealt with this in the past,” and “I have an apprehension about moving into an activity of fasting,” of course I would always suggest that they talk to a medical professional first.

If a medical professional gives the go ahead, then, because of the fact that anorexia and bulimia have their foundation in shame and secrecy, I would suggest that we follow the practical structure that we set up in our last episode, of taking 25 hours (I really wouldn’t want to prescribe a fast longer than that, at least for my congregation, of sundown to sundown). And, I would suggest this person try this, not on their own, but in participation with another person.

In this way, it’s not you fasting alone, but a 25 hour intimate participation with that other person in prayer and constant conversation about the Lord, which will be a real opportunity for growth for both parties, in which they both have a desperate hunger for God, and are willing to do this together.

Finally, I would insist on participation in the culmination, or breaking of the fast, by moving into a time of feasting and thankfulness for the grace of God and what he has provided, after sundown.

So, if all of that is acceptable to the person, and they say, “Yes, I want to do this,” then I believe the grace of God is going to come into the parties’ participation together, corporately.

I wouldn’t prescribe this to a person individually, on their own, if they had a history of an eating disorder.

Nick: Certainly there are diverse histories and varying degrees of eating disorders, so I like the fact that you mention speaking with a physician and encouraging communication. I like that we can talk about the nuances of fasting, and give pastoral answers.

In an upcoming episode, I’m going to be interviewing Mike Neglia on the topic of gluttony, which is the other side of the coin from fasting. So keep an eye out for that.

Listen to the Discussion Here

Fasting Q&A Podcast Episode

Fasting Q&A: Eating Disorders & Alternative Forms of Fasting Theology for the People

In this Bonus Episode, Conor Berry and I discuss some questions we received regarding our previous episode on fasting: Can you fast from things other than food? What about people who have present or past eating disorders? Can they, or should they fast? Conor also mentions another resource in this episode on the topic of feasting: The Supper of the Lamb by Robert Capon If you find this episode interesting or helpful, please share it with others and leave a rating and review on your podcast app, as that helps other people discover this podcast and its content. Make sure to visit the Theology for the People blog at nickcady.org 

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