Does Religious Fasting Lead To Eating Disorders?

I want to preface the post by clarifying a few things. Firstly, I have nothing but the utmost respect for religious freedoms, so long as they don’t cause harm on others. Second, I deeply recognize the lengthy and profound history of religious fasting. Lastly, I grew up celebrating many Jewish holidays.  All that being said, however, I am horribly concerned about a religious practice, such as that of Yom Kippur, (“The Day of Atonement,”) that encourages girls as young as 12 (and boys as young as 13) to abstain from eating or drinking as a means by which to atone for one’s sins.

Already, in our culture, we put an incredible emphasis on food as a means of reward and punishment. Parents use food (dessert, perhaps) to persuade children to follow rules, to show love, or to punish noncompliance. As adults, we continue to mirror this pattern ourselves, on our own bodies. But it is this very idea of food as punishment or reward that sits at the core of most eating disorders – from the most mild form of body image issues to clinical anorexia and bulimia, from using food as a reward to binge eating. At the crux is the idea that food is a tool by which we control our bodies – and, in the case of religious fasting, our souls – rather than a source of energy, nourishment and life.

While this concerns me for all women and girls, what alarms me most is that children as young as 12 are encouraged to participate – and celebrated for making it through the day without eating or drinking when, regardless of the age at which a particular religion recognizes adulthood, most 12-year-old girls are still, for all intents and purposes, kids. They get help with their homework, have afterschool activities, and go to sleep-away camp.

These are formidable years for young girls.

At the age of 12, most young girls’ bodies are undergoing a lot of changes which take them (usually) further and further away from the highly coveted (and, needless to say unrealistic) pre-pubescent body ideal perpetuated in American culture. It’s the overlap between these unrealistic beauty ideals, natural body changes, and the use of food (and fasting) as a means of control that is so dangerous. At 12-years-old, girls should be learning how to listen to their bodies, not encouraged to control their bodies with food or celebrated for fasting/starving.

Think children are too young to be affected by the eating disorder epidemic? Think again:

Studies of body image and eating disorders in children unveil alarming results. 46% of 9 to 11-year-olds are “sometimes” or “very often” on diets;[1] 51% of 9 and 10-year-olds “feel better about themselves” when they are dieting;[2] and a staggering 9% of 9-year-old girls report purging behaviors[3]. And these attitudes and behaviors are predictive of eating disorders later in life.[4]

Still think 12-year-olds should be encouraged to fast? Think they don’t know of diets or feel the pressure to look “skinny”? Consider this:

In one study of 13-year-old girls, 80% of them reported having dieted. When reevaluated 12 months later, at only 14 years of age, of the 80% who had previously reported dieting, 40% were currently trying to lose weight and 20% were classified as suffering from an eating disorder.[5] In fact, eating disorders are the third most common illness among adolescent females[6] with as many as 10% of teenagers suffering.[7]

And this isn’t just about restrictive eating disorders. Rather, restrictive eating disorders and the obesity epidemic are two sides of the same coin and both have roots in the idea of using foods as a means of controlling our bodies.

So, is it smart to encourage young girls to spend the day abstaining from food as a religious rite, to tell them that starving oneself is a way to atone for your sins, to congratulate and celebrate them for making it through the day? Is there not a better way to teach the religious lessons here than by fasting? Is there not a less dangerous way?

And for all of you who will say that it’s tradition, that the bible says so, that it’s the way it’s always been, remember this: a lot of things in the bible have been reinterpreted and reconsidered (polygamy, child marriage, domestic violence, to name a few)…

I’d love to know what you think… do you have children who you encourage to fast on religious holidays?

[1] Gustafson-Larson and Terry, “Weight-related behaviors and concerns of fourth-grade children.”
[2] Steiner-Adair, “The Politics of Prevention,” 385.
[3] Steiner-Adair, “The Politics of Prevention,” 385.
[4] Thompson and Smolak.  Body Image, Eating Disorders, and Obesity in Youth: Assessment, Prevention, and Treatment.
[5] Shisslak, et al., “The McKnight Foundation Prospective Study of Risk Factors for the Development of Eating Disorders,” 60.
[6] Dittrich, “About-Face Facts of Eating Disorders,” 2.
[7] The Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, Our Bodies, Ourselves, 61.