Dry Fasting and Disordered Eating

Not the most fun topic, and for that I apologize, but I think it’s important. Long post—feel free to skip to the “Conclusions” section at the bottom.

TLDR; If dry fasting for weight-loss, a conscious effort should be made to repair one’s relationship with food.

Dry fasting is a transformative tool. How you think about food during/after a dry fast has the power to drastically change your brain’s response to it. The difference between thinking “I don’t want this” rather than “I want this and can’t have it” is literally life-changing.

This probably won’t apply to everyone, but I think it applies to a lot of us that have struggled with our weight. Dry fasting is the ultimate form of restriction, and the most potentially dangerous. It can be used to fix how we relate to food—or it can cause further damage if we’re not careful.

Dry fasting has made me shift my perspective on many things, and it’s definitely forced me to analyze my relationship with food. Food has always been a source of both stress and dopamine for me. Dry fasting both lessens my need for dopamine and (temporarily) eliminates the stress from thinking about food. Dry fasting became an addiction in a way, which was especially concerning to my partner/family, and led me down a path of researching eating disorders, and consciously putting effort into building/repairing my relationship with food.

I hesitated to even post this because I’m hardly an authority on the subject. I’m just someone who recognizes the issues that I’ve struggled with, and is trying to work on them. I wouldn’t say “I no longer have an eating disorder,” but rather, “my eating habits and attitude toward food are far less disordered than they were.”

This post is not meant to suggest what anyone should or shouldn’t eat, or criticize anyone who chooses to follow a particular diet. I’m not suggesting that diets are bad, or that certain foods should/shouldn’t be avoided, or to what degree GMOs are harmful, or anything like that. If you feel better avoiding certain foods, then absolutely do that. This is just my personal thoughts based on my experience.

Basic Overview of Eating Disorders:

When people hear the term eating disorder, most will immediately picture a ninety-pound teenaged girl. The reality is that many people—I’d argue most, at least in the U.S.—have an unhealthy relationship with food, and are stuck in a binge-restrict cycle.

The cycle goes: restriction (dieting, fasting, cleanses, etc.) —> thoughts constantly revolving around food —> binge (eating past the point of fullness and/or in an out-of-control manner) —> a renewed and strengthened urge to restrict.

Anorexia and bulimia are the result of being stuck in an extreme binge-restrict cycle. It manifests so often in young girls because of the immense social pressure on women to remain thin and attractive. Regardless of opinion, women’s worth has been primarily based on their appearance for millennia, and that pressure is insanely high. Without that amount of pressure leading to an extreme mental illness, it’s almost impossible for the average person to actually restrict to that degree.

The more likely outcome for those of us in the binge-restrict cycle is weight gain. Heavy portion control and eliminating food you enjoy can lead to feelings of deprivation, which results in stronger cravings, and a lost sense of control around food.

We tell ourselves, “Cheesecake is fattening,” so we restrict that food, even though it’s something we enjoy, and that increases our craving for it. Not giving the body/brain what it wants makes it seek satisfaction elsewhere, which can result in a binge.

Ignore the cheesecake
popcorn’s not nearly as bad, so I’ll make that
still hungry so I’ll eat a huge salad
maybe some eggs will fill me up
now I’m thirsty so I’ll make some tea
ooh some pickles sound great
fruit’s healthy, right?
…until I finally cave and have a piece of cheesecake.

That’s what a binge looks like for me these days—replace popcorn with cheetos and tea with hot chocolate, and you’re getting closer to what they used to look like.

Dry fasting broke the cycle for me at “thoughts constantly revolving around food,” since I was taking breaks from thinking about it all together. Water fasting did not have the same effect for me, and felt more like heavy restriction.

Orthorexia is a far more complicated issue, in my opinion. It’s different when your thoughts are around food being harmful to a greater degree than just adding weight. Anyone with the slightest knowledge about 90% of food in our grocery stores is going to be orthorexic to some degree.

My personal attitude is that you’d have to consume a lot of something toxic before it will kill you, and you’ll likely know that something’s off way before then. Sure, you can do deep dives on all sorts of toxicities, and I’m sure many people are suffering from them, but you can’t avoid all toxins. It’s just the reality that not all of us have the luxury of being super picky about what we eat, and we have to weigh the stress versus the potential benefits when making these choices.

Focus on what’s within your control, and stop stressing about everything else. Dry fasting is a hell of a detox on its own. The stress of worrying about every little contaminant that may be in your food is far more damaging.

Food is fuel that we need to survive—it’s not a substance that you can quit and avoid for the rest of your life, nor should you want to. By restricting, you’re attaching negativity to something necessary—and, honestly, wonderful—and giving it power over you, when the reality is that you have complete control.

Telling yourself that carbs are evil when you’re smelling your favorite pizzeria sends a terribly mixed signal, and that will affect you more deeply than walking by a restaurant should. Of course, there are things we should all generally avoid, but pizza/carbs isn’t solely what’s killing people. It’s the constant consumption, the heavily processed foods, the sedentary lifestyles, the increased stress, and the lack of sleep combined. People were eating carbs well before this obesity epidemic.

My Dry Fasting Progression:

When I began dry fasting—did the IF —> OMAD —> water fasting —> dry fasting evolution—I was forced to sit and think about whether I was taking things to an unhealthy extreme.

I genuinely love dry fasting for a multitude of reasons, but the relief from the stress of deciding what to eat multiple times a day is huge. Throw on top of that the ketosis and adrenaline, and I was obsessed. Obviously, food isn’t a stressor I could avoid forever, and the idea of refeeding improperly and causing damage to my body carried with it its own stress—but that was easy to procrastinate, and necessary to ensure I took care during refeeds.

Dry fasting became extremely addicting for a time there. I wish I recorded my data, but I did a week-long rolling fast (mostly 36-48 hours) pretty much every month, plus two consecutive weeks in one month that were mostly 48-60 hours, with other fasts sprinkled in wherever I could. If it wasn’t convenient, healthy, and socially required to eat/drink…I just didn’t. It put stress on my relationships, but I otherwise felt so free from the constant need for sustinence.

It was at the end of my two-week long set of rolling dry fasts that I slowed down. It’s hard to fast when you know it’s upsetting your partner. I was losing weight really fast, despite eating a lot when I was to make sure I was replenishing nutrients. I realized it probably wasn’t sustainable, and I didn’t want to lose so much body fat that I wouldn’t be able to fast at all anymore. Very begrudgingly, I switched my mindset back from weight-loss to forming healthy, sustainable habits, with an added emphasis on fixing my relationship with food.

How I’m Fixing It:

You know those silica gel packets that say, “DO NOT EAT”? The thought never would have occurred to me, but now, every time I see one, the thought enters my head.

There’s a huge difference between “I can’t have this” and “I don’t want this.” What I’ve been doing is trying to shift my mindset from the former to the latter. I’m in no particular rush. Dry fasting is an accelerator, for sure, but I don’t expect years of unhealthy thoughts and patterns to dissolve overnight. As long as my trajectory is heading in a positive direction, I’m happy.

In the meantime, I will certainly slip up and overindulge from time to time. There’s a part of me that’s disappointed in my lack of discipline, but I believe dry fasting helps with that too—my overindulgence is nothing like what it used to be—and I know that beating yourself up doesn’t do much to affect positive change. Instead, I’m choosing to be mindful about my choices, discerning the reasons behind them, and analyzing the effects they ultimately have.

I will note that I’ve had some irresponsible refeeds, and I do not apply this logic to my refeeding windows. There are too many benefits to be reaped from fasting and refeeding for me to want to mess it up. As I’m writing this, I realize that’s one example of the “I don’t want this” mindset override. Letting my cells drink up solid nutrition and my gut microbiome thrive is far more important to me than some random craving for junk food. I wouldn’t drink alcohol while recovering from surgery, and I treat my refeeds with the same self-care.

Aside from during refeeds, there are no foods on my “restrict” list (besides pork, which I have absolutely no desire to eat). Seed oils, refined carbs, dairy products, farm-raised fish, etc.—there are things I generally avoid, but there’s almost nothing that I’m scared to consume. I don’t really have food sensitivities; my body is pretty tolerant of anything as long as its in moderation. More often than not, I make the healthier choice, because I genuinely feel good about it, but if I’m really craving a greasy cheesesteak…a salad will not give me the same satisfaction. If I’m craving cheesesteaks six days a week, then I know it’s a gut microbiome issue, and a dry fast plus proper refeed should fix it.

Conclusions:

Some things I’ve noticed over the last year:

• Fasting teaches you the difference between hunger and stress/boredom, and that was easily 75% of my problem
• Your gut microbiome plays a huge role in what foods you crave
• If I get poor sleep, my food/carb cravings are insatiable
• Fasting is a reset, not a punishment
• When you’re healthy, you want to stay that way, and it’s much more noticeable when something throws you off
• Eating is extremely socially bonding, and this aspect shouldn’t be overlooked when deciding whether or not to fast
• The increased exercise efficiency (Human Growth Hormone) is incredibly useful (though I can only speak for fasts of up to ~3 days). I literally do not get sore anymore either
• A body in motion stays in motion—I have more energy in general when I prioritize exercise
• When I have more muscle, I get much hungrier. If I’m feeling ravenous, I should eat more protein, and avoid convenience foods
• When prioritizing muscle development, if I don’t increase my calorie intake, my body holds on to more, making weight-loss slow down (as a result of, I suspect, metabolism slow-down)

The mind/body connection is important. If your body wants food, and you’re denying it fuel, it will scream. It’s a different feeling than when you are consciously giving your body a rest, with the intention of improving your health. Health improvement—mental and physical—should always be your primary motive, and if you’re carrying excess weight, then weight loss will occur.

If you implement dry fasting into your life, you’ll automatically become more in-tune with your body. Strengthen this connection, and you’ll be able to distinguish true hunger and thirst from boredom, stress, or even a parasite. You’ll learn what cravings you should ignore, and which ones to indulge.

There are no studies that conclusively prove any diet as being superior for everyone, aside from maybe whole foods—and even those aren’t 100%, because many of those people over-stress about what they’re eating. There are far more studies showing that a diet of mostly processed foods is clearly damaging, and that small amounts of processed foods are ultimately harmless. Our bodies are experts at eliminating things that serve us no good.

The way you think about what you consume will affect your body’s reaction to it. If you think something’s going to harm you, it will.

The way you think about food during/after a dry fast will change your brain’s response to it. If you dive deep into how horrible and contaminated and GMO our food is, you’re potentially creating/increasing food anxiety (and maybe sensitivity). At the same time, if you focus on the positive and objective, like how great a nice steak makes you feel, you will naturally steer toward healthier food options, and by default avoid harmful ones.

Dry fasting is an incredibly transformative tool. You’re making conscious moves to break a (often unconscious) pattern that your brain is very used to, forcing it to explore new pathways and make new connections. You can use this to reshape your attitude toward food for the better. Mindfulness comes with fasting by default—hone in on it. Rather than feeling shame for making mistakes, practice self-love and really give yourself credit for your accomplishments.

By strengthening my mind/body connection, I’ve begun to build a sense of trust, and it really is making a huge difference.

great post - would love to see more this is excellent under the experiences section!