By Andrew Walen, LCSW-C, LICSW, CEDS
In recent months, I’ve been interview for newspaper articles and blogs about the rise in interest in intermittent fasting in males. Intermittent fasting (IF) is the practice of refusing to eat for significant chunks of time to “bio-hack” one’s metabolism to gain “mental clarity” and energy. Essentially, men are purposefully starving themselves and are celebrated for doing so. The trend is championed by athletes, CEOs, actors and models. When women follow similar disordered eating behaviors, they face a huge backlash accompanied by an outpouring of education about disordered eating leading to negative mental and physical health outcomes. Instead, because it’s being done by a man, it’s seen as a form of “bettering himself.” The hypocrisy is just painful.
In American, and most Western cultures for that matter, disordered eating in women is seen to be tied to beauty and thinness. The goal is to meet an often-unobtainable aesthetic standard. While beauty is still the gold standard that drives these behaviors, “health” is the new buzz word driving people toward eating disorder behaviors. No matter the goal, the means are still propagated through celebrity-endorsed starvation-level detox cleanses, diet plans, meal prep programs, and the like. No longer a behavior of the young, even Today Show hosts Jenna Bush Hager and Hoda Kotb weighed themselves on live TV and have embarked on an IF diet with the goals of losing weight and improving “brain health, and energy and skin.”
When men take on disordered eating behaviors such as IF, it’s coined “optimizing” because they are perceived as “powerful” men who are not trying to meet a standard like thinness, they are trying to exceed a standard to gain an advantage in business and career. Pseudo-scientific studies with small sample sizes and short time frames are used to support their belief that behaviors like IF are benefiting them. What they often are experiencing is the same kind of “high” and feeling of control found in clients diagnosed with anorexia.
In a recent article published on the Quartz website, IF was discussed by my colleague Dr. Cynthia Bulik, director of the Center for Excellence for Eating Disorders at the University of North Carolina. She shared important insights about the dangers of IF and how it can lead to full blown eating disorders. For those genetically susceptible to binge eating, IF can be a trigger for rebound binge eating, and possibly for guilt-driven purging behaviors. For those prone to anorexia, IF can be a precursor for developing the disease. Eating disorders are the deadliest of all mental illnesses, with someone dying of the disease every hour in the United States.
Again, because these behaviors are seen in men as “self-improvement,” and not pathological as they are in women, men miss the opportunity for early diagnosis and treatment. Even when males can acknowledge they have a problematic relationship with food, they don’t tend to think of this as an eating disorder as it’s not couched in language of body image as it is for women. Truth is, male eating disorder language involves control, power, masculinity, strength, size, and dominance. But it’s typically not about weight.
The hope is more education is brought to the fore about disordered eating behaviors, such as intermittent fasting, and the dangers they pose. In addition, we need to end the stigma attached to having an eating disorder for males, so they are more likely to seek treatment if they are struggling.
To do less simply fosters this hypocrisy.