Despite the many health benefits of intermittent fasting, some of its fiercest critics have equated it with  disordered eating. Fasting constrains the timing of caloric intake, which is a risk factor for anxiety, loss of control and rigid attitudes around food. However, it’s possible to practice intermittent fasting without developing negative habits.

Disordered eating began with fad diets, says Marisa Moon, National Board Certified Health & Wellness Coach, fasting instructor, and host/producer of The Foundation of Wellness Podcast. Diet culture taught us to obsess over calories and the fat and carb content of what we consumed. In contrast, intermittent fasting doesn’t play by a lot of those rules, which can free one’s mind and reduce preoccupation with food. 

However, it does have risks. Cynthia Bulik, founding director of the University of North Carolina Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders, says her main concerns with intermittent fasting include prioritizing your fasting schedule over your social and family life, and losing control over how much you’re eating or how many hours you’re fasting. 

LifeOmic does not recommend intermittent fasting for people who have previously struggled with eating disorders. For those who have not, it’s still important to practice intermittent fasting in a way that is as safe and productive as possible. We spoke to Bulik to help us identify red flags that might signal unhealthy fasting behavior, and we asked Moon to give us some strategies to avoid them. We give you the highlights below:

Prioritize your family, social and work life over your fasting schedule

“If you find yourself crafting your life around your fasting schedule and missing important opportunities, you are veering into an obsessional preoccupation with intermittent fasting,” says Bulik. Watch for moments when your fasting schedule takes precedence over birthdays, graduations, weddings, family gatherings, or work-related events. She explains that when a behavior becomes too rigid and inflexible, that behavior may no longer be healthy and could instead work against you.  

Group of Happy friends having breakfast in the restaurant
Fasting is flexible and it adapts to your lifestyle. Don’t try to plan your life around your fasting hours. Plan your fasting hours to fit your work, social and family life.

To avoid falling into rigid intermittent fasting patterns, Moon recommends reminding yourself that unpredictability and variation is precisely what makes fasting effective and easy to do. “Fasting should be able to be molded so that it accommodates your life, your happiness and your relationships,” she says. Sharing a meal with your family or your friends is a pretty good reason to stop or postpone a fast. “Don’t be disappointed in yourself if you don’t hit your fasting goal every day…Congratulate yourself for working on your health…Strive to make [intermittent fasting] a sustainable practice instead of a perfect practice.”

Keep a log of how you feel while fasting 

Bulik recommends journaling about how you feel during and after your fast. “Fasting should make you feel better every time,” says Moon. “If fasting makes you feel worse, more stressed, less like yourself or less in control, then it’s a sign that you’re fasting too long.” If you live with someone else, Bulik recommends having them keep a log as well so your observations aren’t limited to your self-perception. 

Moon also thinks it’s important to ask yourself whether your diet has improved since adopting an intermittent fasting lifestyle. She’s noticed that those who are rigid about their fasting schedules are either those with a history of perfectionism or those who use intermittent fasting as a license to eat poorly. If you are in either of those categories, take some time to self-reflect, or seek professional support to determine if intermittent fasting is right for you.

Cropped shot of a woman sitting on her bed and writing in a journal in the morning
Keep track of how you feel while fasting. “If fasting makes you feel worse, more stressed, less like yourself or less in control, then it’s a sign that you’re fasting too long.”

Rate your feelings of hunger and satisfaction 

Moon recommends rating your feelings on a scale of 1-10. You might rate your hunger during your fast, or your feelings of satisfaction after eating. This could help you build self-awareness and help you decide when to eat a little more, when to stop eating, and when to end your fast early. You could also rate your levels of anxiety if you feel uneasy before or after eating. Doing this regularly will be helpful to determine if any of your habits could be a red flag, such as fasting longer to feel calmer or extending your fast out of fear that you will overeat.

Avoid triggering foods or places

“If you find that you start competing with yourself [to see how long you can prolong your fast], or if you find that you can’t control your eating after, then you are treading into dangerous eating disorders territory,” says Bulik. (Editor’s note: some of us like to challenge ourselves with longer fasts. This may or may not signal a problem, depending on personality, mental state, etc. Seek professional guidance if you’re unsure). Watch for moments when you go into fast-binge cycles, or when you start to lose control of your fasting hours.

If you’re worried you’ll overeat, Moon says to avoid any all-you-can-eat settings or places that offer supersize options. You should also avoid triggering foods such as pizza or chips. Instead, make your meals into an event whenever possible. This includes cooking from scratch or planning to break your fast around another person. “A lot of us exhibit more self-control when somebody else is there,” she says. It’s also a good idea to acclimate your body to intermittent fasting, starting with short overnight fasts of 12-14 hours and adding hours gradually if you’d like to fast longer. 

steaming mixed vegetables in the wok, asian style cooking vegetarian and healthy, selected focus, narrow depth of field
Make your meals into an event whenever possible. This includes cooking from scratch!

Understand when it’s time to break your fast 

Once you start having racing thoughts or fantasies about food and you’re having an endless debate with yourself about whether you should break your fast, it usually means you should eat, Moon explains. You’re more likely to repeat behaviors you perceive as rewarding. If you start to feel uncomfortable or unwell, it’s time to get some food in you.

Seek professional help from a therapist or eating disorder specialist if intermittent fasting is damaging your perceptions of your body and/or food. Psychotherapy can be beneficial to help process your feelings and thoughts and learn coping mechanisms unique to your needs.