How to Navigate Religious Fasting During Eating Disorder Recovery
It can be challenging to navigate religious holidays that call for fasting while maintaining eating disorder recovery. Whether this means fasting during the holy month of Ramadan or following the fasting and abstinence guidelines during Lent or Yom Kippur, preparing for and engaging in these religious traditions can lead to feelings of stress, shame and guilt for those who are recovering from or actively struggling with an eating disorder.
For people of faith recovering from eating disorders, it is important to consider the physical, emotional and spiritual components of recovery. If you are considering religious fasting, please discuss it with your treatment team. Here we spotlight the religious fasting associated with Ramadan, Lent and Yom Kippur, and offer guidance on how to balance faith and recovery.
Fasting During Ramadan
The holy month of Ramadan is a month of fasting, worship, service, communal gathering and spiritual development. This year Ramadan runs from approximately March 22 to April 21.
Fasting in Ramadan is one of the Five Pillars of Islam and generally entails abstaining from food and drink from before the first light of dawn until the setting of the sun. Muslims are required to fast on each of the 29-30 days of Ramadan. A pre-dawn meal is common and considered to be a highly admirable practice. Breaking fast at sundown is often done with dates and milk, followed by a fuller meal after the evening prayers.
The Islamic faith allows exemptions from fasting during Ramadan for those who are sick . Fasting is meant to be a spiritual challenge but not a threat to one’s health. Individuals with eating disorders and/or in eating disorder recovery are excused from fasting due to having a medical condition wherein fasting would cause serious harm. The Islamic Networks Group suggests that local religious authority figures can and should be advised to foster faith-based recovery.
In addition, Muslims may only eat food that is halal, which means that it is lawful or permissible under Islamic law. For a food, specifically meat, to be halal, it must be slaughtered in a specific manner while a prayer is recited. Maintaining halal eating practices and observing Ramadan can be especially challenging for those in eating disorder treatment. Therefore, it is necessary for halal food to be readily available for Muslim patients, especially during Ramadan.
Fasting During Lent
Lent is a period of 40 days during which Christians remember the events leading up to and including the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, whose life and teachings are the foundation of Christianity.
The word Lent is an old English term meaning “lengthen,” as the time of year when Lent happens is when the days start to get longer. It is a time of reflection and of asking for forgiveness, and when Christians prepare to celebrate Jesus's resurrection at the feast of Easter, which comes at the very end of Lent.
Followers of Christianity will give something up during Lent as a sign of sacrifice. Christians believe that abstinence represents Jesus Christ's sacrifice when he went into the desert to pray and fast for the 40 days before his dying on the cross. Many know of the tradition of abstaining from meat on Fridays during Lent, but followers are also called to fast during Lent in other ways as well. The Catholic tradition of “giving something up” for Lent is a reverent tradition but, according to the United States Council of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), it is not regulated by church law.
In addition, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are two yearly days of obligatory fasting and abstinence in the Catholic religion. On these holidays, fasting means a person is permitted to eat one full meal. Two smaller meals may also be taken, but they must not be equal in size to a full meal.
According to USCCB, observers of the Lenten season may be excused from abstinence and fasting for medical reasons and may show their penance by renouncing other, non-diet-related things.
Fasting During Yom Kippur
In Judaism, the holiest day of the year is Yom Kippur, also known as the Day of Atonement. Jewish communities observe Yom Kippur with a 25-hour fast that includes religious services of prayer and repentance.
Fasting for this holiday does not include children. It is also suspended when there is a life and death concern. In general, when in treatment and in earlier stages of recovery for an eating disorder, the patient is considered by Jewish law to be in a situation that fasting would be of life and death concern.
In a treatment setting, the family rabbi may be consulted in advance of Yom Kippur to receive specific dispensation from fasting. However, in case of medical emergency of life and death concern, or even in case of suspected life and death concern, the patient should be given food or medicine immediately. At Eating Recovery Center, Rabbi Tzvi Steinberg is on staff and can be called upon to counsel the patient and family in this regard.
For more information on navigating eating disorder recovery and Judaism, visit chabad.org.
Balancing Religious Holidays, Fasting and Recovery
Therapeutic management of religious fasting and eating disorders requires a balance of care, knowledge, support, patience and respect for each person’s individual journey. It is recommended that individuals in recovery consult with their treatment team to discuss how they can modify their religious fasts or food rules in order to maintain their eating disorder recovery.
Treatment options for eating disorders should integrate cultural and religious facets of the patient’s life in order to help them modify their behaviors while still following their religious observances. Family and friends can be included in the discussion so they can provide additional support throughout the process. There is also value in engaging with others who may have gone through a similar journey or experience by finding a complimentary eating disorder support group.
By taking into account the needs of those in eating disorder recovery and adjusting religious fasts or food rules accordingly, individuals can observe their faith traditions without jeopardizing their recovery. Individuals with an eating disorder can focus on developing mindful eating behaviors and work with their therapist and dietitian to form a balanced meal plan that honors their faith while allowing them to work toward lasting recovery.
- Judaism in Eating Disorder Treatment
- How Lent Can Support Eating Disorder Recovery
- How Nutrition Affects Eating Disorder Recovery
 Abolaban, H., & Al-Moujahed, A. (2017). Muslim patients in Ramadan: A review for primary care physicians. Avicenna Journal of Medicine, 7(3), 81-87. doi: 10.4103/ajm.AJM_76_17.