Tuesday 30 December 2008

When does Intermittent Fasting become an Eating Disorder?

Over the festive period, I fasted more often than usual. This is my first Christmas since adopting regular intermittent fasting and the way I responded to the season's traditional gluttony highlighted something that's been bugging me for a while. At what point does a feast become a binge and when does a fast become guilt-induced starvation?
Fasting Rationale
Recognising that our ancestors did not have a consistent food supply and that our bodies function better when sometimes given a rest from the burden of digestion was a liberating moment. It freed me from the misguided shackles of the 5-meals-a-day mantra which is frequently chanted by shake peddlers, carb munchers, snack bar manufacturers and others whom it suits to keep us within 50 yards of a refrigerator at all times. I also find it a great way to achieve digestive stability.

My fasts are typically between one evening meal and the next. I am supposed to be emulating the random nature of ancestral living, but tend to pick Tuesdays and Saturdays because for a creature of routine like myself, being entirely random does not come easily; I figure my digestion doesn't understand what a week is, so as far my body is concerned, it's random.

Here are my four most common feasting and fasting scenarios:

Preemptive: I tend to eat more than usual the evening before a fast.
Post-fast: at the end of a fast, I tend to eat more than normal.

Preemptive: I often fast on days I know I will be having a large evening meal.
Post-feast: I often fast the day after after an unexpectedly large evening meal.

You may question whether preemptive feasting or fasting are in the spirit of ancestral living - one could argue neither would make much sense in a hunter gatherer context - but I won't digress here.
License for Gluttony
Over Christmas and new year, I believe I used the principles of intermittent fasting as a license for gluttony. There were a number of meals arranged with friends or family where I knew there would be several courses. To prepare for the larger intake of food, I preemptively fasted. On each occasion, I then ate far more than intended. Far more. Likely causes of this shameless gluttony were: a) the food was tastier than usual (and, let's be honest, less strictly hunter gatherer), b) they were was social occasions, c) there was a massive surplus of food which it seemed only polite to help reduce and d) I was especially hungry because I had been fasting.

The following day, having gone to bed with a distended abdomen and a vague sense of self-loathing, I would arise with a determination to use a post-feast fast to achieve calorific parity and cleanse my system of the overload it had just suffered.

I blogged about one of these meals here last week. Skip to the Success and Gluttony section for the relevant part.
Eating Disorders
Before I go any further, I should explain that I do understand what eating disorders are. I am able to speak from a position of at least a little experience, having been close to two sufferers, one with anorexia and the other, bulimia. I am aware that the most significant drivers for eating disorders centre around control and self-esteem and that the condition has often arisen as a reaction to traumatic circumstances in sufferers' lives.

The point I want to make is that it's easy to cloak one's guilt about gaining weight and overeating in the hunter gatherer rationale. If I am totally honest, my primary concern during my own recent feasts and fasts was being able eat a large amount of food without gaining body fat. I felt guilty when I ate too much food and to compensate for this, starved myself the following day. Once I had a taste for excess, I did this several times.

Did my plan work? No. Next time I post my body composition graph, you'll see quite how badly it failed.

I don't have an eating disorder and unless something profound happens, I never will. I am lucky enough to have none of the personal circumstances typically required to precipitate one. Yes, I am fixated on maintaining a lean, muscular body and see unwanted body fat where others see nothing - but that makes me obsessive, not anorexic; but I can't help wondering whether there are a small number of people with less emotionally stable circumstances for whom intermittent fasting becomes a gateway to something less beneficial.
More Information
In case you are interested in understanding eating disorders a little more, here is the website I used to refresh my memory about some of the issues. I stress that I have not researched the topic extensively, nor looked into the background of this site - so I offer this link without any assurances of probity or quality.

As for intermittent fasting, the IF Life is a good blog for understanding the benefits and techniques.


Ruth said...

Firstly, I bet our primal ancestors DID do a bit of pre-emptive feasting, if not fasting. And I bet when they had a lot of food, and gorged, they might have done some post-emptive fasting, because even though protein and fat are somewhat self-limiting when it comes to binging, I could see Grog or Grogette overdoing a nice pile of fruit and honey or something, then feeling a little bit sick and bad afterward.

OK, so eating disorders--I struggled with one myself, many moons ago. And yes, I think that intermittent fasting COULD trigger such a response in a susceptible individual. But, it's more the OBSESSION WITH FOOD that feeds the eating disorder, rather than fasting PER SE. So if fasting becomes obsession, the line could be crossed.

But, I think to develop any kind of addiction (which is what I consider an eating disorder to be), a person uses obsession as a tool of AVOIDANCE. So, if you are a little bit of a fitness fanatic, or "obsessed" with your diet (you as in anyone), but don't have any big nasty emotional dynamite inside that you're avoiding, your "obsession" will most likely wax and wane.

Of course, this is my own humble opinion based on my own little life. I'm not a psychologist or psychiatrist.

Thanks for the interesting post.

Anonymous said...

Great points Methuselah, but when it comes to the holiday season, you've got to have an eating disorder to get through it. Intermittent fasting is not an eating disorder simply because it is another form of meal timing just like the 5-6 meal meal plan. Honestly, I would consider eating obsessively every 2-3 hours is just as bad as anorexia, or overeating. Intermittent fasting builds up a nice hunger that make meals so much more satisfying.

Methuselah said...

Thanks Ruth - some really interesting insights.

I guess on the question of pre-emptive behaviour, the distinction I would make is that our ancestors wouldn't really be able to plan in the same way. In a sense, they would feast every time they got food, eating until satisfied. Since they would not have predicted the successful food discovery, any fasting would have been enforced rather than pre-emptive. I suppose there would have been successful groups who stockpiled food, so perhaps I am being overly simplistic here.

An interesting ancestral take on the eating disorder angle is this: wouldn't they have been obsessed with food by definition? Considering the importance it had in the context of their lives, it would seem entirely natural. It's only in the modern context that we can afford not to obsess about it because it's so readily available. It makes me wonder whether we have an innate predisposition towards such obsession because it was essential for survival, and in some small way this can work against us in the modern world.

Methuselah said...

JE - you're right about the 5-6 meals-a-day thing being just as bad an obsession - I certainly obsessed over that a couple of years back. And as I say, intermittent fasting is for me a much more natural way to eat. I think it may just be the case that my excessive gluttony over Christmas (or supposed 'feasts') were a consequence of straying from strictly hunter gatherer food and therefore not allowing my true appetite to regulate the volume.

Anonymous said...

My friend,

Your "preview" link does not work, and I lost my entire comment (which might be lucky for you, since it was LOOOONG, and I was STOOPID and did not copy it).

Anyway, what I essentially said (in much greater detail, of course), is that I went on an almost complete fast (no solids, diluted apple juice, celery soup, psyllium seed to cleanse, and powdered vitamin C) for 5 days. The first couple days, I felt horrid and hungry and was completely obsessed with food. After the psyllium seed "kicked in" I felt great, and didn't think about food too much at all.

I broke the fast gradually (adding raw greens, then this, then that).

I skipping all the stuff I said in my sadly lost post about whether the fast was a positive experience or whether I would do it again.

But I will say that based on my own experience, I think our ancestors were most likely "intermittently" obsessed with food, much like they were "intermittent" fasters.

By the way, I really enjoy this blog!

Methuselah said...

Ruth - really sorry you lost your comment. It's very annoying when that happens: I have lost some pretty long comments in the past myself. Yesterday I changed a setting to have the comments box embedded in the page and have now changed it back since it's obviously useless!

I guess you are right about the intermittent obsession - in a way we are saying that obsession and hunger are closely related. There was a post on Free the Animal yesterday that struck a chord with me because it reminded me how much the dynamics of my own appetite have been changed by the hunter gatherer diet. Something that occurs to me is that becoming permanently obsessed with food regardless of supply may be encouraged by processed, high-carb diets because of the effect they have on hunger - so perhaps a reasonable hypothesis would be that eating disorders are made harder to control by the modern diet or that conversely a hunter gatherer diet would make them easier to control. I realise that even if we accepted the latter it may be of little therapeutic use for obvious reasons!

I would love to try a longer than 24 hour fast by the way and was inspired by your description to consider it - but I don't know whether I would inflict it on Mrs M. I suspect there would be periods where I might not be such great company...

Asclepius said...

I look at my diet and eating patterns and have wondered if it is a symptom of an eating disorder. Certainly on paper, the Paleo model looks like an eating disorder to most people out there!

I think paleo-gorging/feasting and then fasting is good and appropriate. Certainly it seems to me that apex predators like lions eat like this out in the wild.

Having read your post, it occured to me that maybe eating disorders are a problem manifest from large quantities of refined carbs or our regular '3-6 meals a day' eating habits? We know refined carbs make us eat more, and more often.

Personally I have found fasting to be a natural extension of paleo living - but maybe fasting is actually an essential element for health?

Methuselah said...

Asclepius - your point about refined carbs resonates with the point in my previous comment. It may be that feasting and fasting comes naturally when one is on a paleo diet but becomes much harder to manage and less instinctive otherwise - hence my struggles over the festive season.

Ruth said...

Methuselah - It's OK--I've lost comments before and will no doubt lose them again. I should always copy before sending. Sometimes I do that, but sadly it seems, not when I actually lose the comment.

It's true--obsession and hunger are closely related. Although I do think some components of food obsession are psychological, too.

I read that post on "Free the Animal"--interesting--thanks for the link. It's true--since I've cut carbs, I'm much less hungry.

And, controlling blood sugar would, I think, make any kind of therapeutic intervention with any kind of disorder more effective, because stabilized blood sugar means more even moods, and wildly fluctuating blood sugar--well, things get ugly.

If you do try a longer than 24 hour fast, I suggest you keep yourself busy for the first couple of days, and stay away from Mrs M., if such a thing is possible. After that, probably not such a big deal.

Hungry Girl said...

You said "Once I had a taste for excess, I did this several times.

Did my plan work? No. Next time I post my body composition graph, you'll see quite how badly it failed."

I really liked your post. Someone needs to address the eating disorder aspect of IF. But I'm unclear on how badly you failed. It seems like you've been doing well. Consistent weight loss with maintenance of muscle.

Maybe I'm misunderstanding what you mean by feasting vs gorging. I know what I think the difference is, but I'm wondering about your take on it. Thanks in advance!


Methuselah said...

Hungry Girl - I suppose how badly I failed depends on your perception. To summarise, I went from being about 10.5% fat to 12.5% fat and from having a few wrinkles in my stomach when I sat on the bed to having a small bicycle tyre. Most of my friends, naturally, scoffed at me when I complained about this - but the more perceptive amongst them recognised that these things are relative and expressed at least a little sympathy (not that I was seeking it.) Given that most of my workouts are now bodyweight-based, carrying an additional half stone makes a big difference, which was probably the most annoying thing.

My muscle mass, by the way, was probably unchanged, although I have not yet graphed the readings.

To me it's amazing that you can gain that much fat from 5 large meals, especially when I was fasting (starving) afterwards in the hope of compensating. Of course it was the composition, not the size of the meals that made possible such a profound accumulation.

To me the distinction between feasting and gorging/gluttony can almost also be defined according to the type of food one is eating and therefore its effect on appetite. When I was gorging on the carb-heavy, refined desserts, I was not really able to control my appetite - it was mainly stomach capacity that made me stop. The feeling was totally different from when I feast on Paleo foods, where there is a natural sense of fullness and no urge to go beyond a reasonable amount.

Does that make sense?

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with what I've read here.

Maybe this is too simple a definition, but I'd have to go with an eating disorder being when you are sacrificing nutrition for emotional reasons. Or maybe any reasons.

Under this definition, binging on lots of carb-heavy low-quality junk and then not eating would be a cause for concern.

Eating in a 4 hour window every day, but still meeting proper nutrition goals doesn't concern me as much. I hope to integrate IF once I get the paleo and strength training habits down.

Methuselah said...

Arlo - in fact I am eating warrior-style at the moment as an experiment, but staying strictly Paleo. It's definately a totally different experience from the binge-starve behaviour over Christmas! I will be posting about this in a week or two...

thania said...

Nice self analyzing , I dont believe in the science or argument behind IF, as is too short time for the body to see any physiological changes in its methabolic path, but must say that I did it last week, for the first time and it felt good not to be slave of food and having to fuel every 3-5 hr, the problem for me is that I can not eat a huge quantity, and ended up with 700ish cals.

I think it corrects our bad habits, sometimes I open the fridge,and then I ask myself why did I open the fridge for?, is kind of automated reaccion , when ever I enter the kitchen. With IF at least I am correcting this automated reaccion, " Mindless fidge openning reflect", ..

Methuselah said...

Thania - I definately like the control I get from being able to fast and certainly the more I do it the easier it gets (which is presumably because of the beneficial effects on insulin sensitivity etc.) I expecially like the time it saves. The day before a fast, when I would normally be preparing a lunch for the next day, I get more time in the evening...

Anonymous said...

This is a fantastic post. After suffering from anorexia, then bulimia for many years (and still in recovery), my experiments with intermittent fasting and feasting have come up with the same results. I think it mimics the effects of yo-yo dieting quite well, ultimately resulting in fat gain. Personally, I know that trying to follow the "Warrior Diet", which includes one large nightly meal (can be spread over several hours) gave me an excuse to starve, then binge, and fueled my bulimia.

Thanks for the great blog.

Methuselah said...

Thanks Laura - I hope you are winning the battle. Do you find being on a Paleo diet (assuming you have been at some time) make these things easier to manage?

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