Is intermittent fasting just another form of disordered eating?


What if, and I’m just floating it here, intermittent fasting turns out to be… a fad? Something on a par with the long-forgotten “baby food diet” of the early 2010s, let’s say. In the current clamour to acclaim fasting as a way to treat cancer, boost brain power, repair cells and shred fat, I feel like it’s worth recalling the faddy food regiment rumoured to have been taken up by Lady Gaga, Cheryl Cole, Jennifer Aniston and many other female celebrities a decade ago.

It involved eating around 14 portions of pureed baby food every day, with the occasional actual meal thrown in. Papers chuckled as sales of wet baby food soared, and jars of Ella’s Kitchen organic chicken and sweetcorn mash were snapped up before they could be aeroplaned into their intended infant mouths. Despite the hilarity, this diet was simply a form of prolonged abstinence, much like intermittent fasting (IF). So it’s curious why one diet gave people the giggles and the other is being treated as a miracle. I think the answer is simple: because it is men who are suddenly all over IF, nobody’s calling BS on it the way they did when Cole was allegedly eating tiny jars of creamed porridge.

I was conflicted to hear earlier this month that our prime minister Rishi Sunak practices an extreme fasting ritual for 36 hours every week. After all, we’ve only just diagnosed “hanger” as a full-on societal ill – only to learn that the most powerful man in the land is voluntarily parachuting himself into the hanger zone every Monday. Yet the press around Sunak’s adoption of fasting had an unexpected side effect: it brought two very distinct fasting tribes to the fore.

The first camp includes people who have come to IF because they’re suffering from an illness or a medical issue. For example, there have been studies that show a link between a pared-back diet and chemotherapy being more effective, which has naturally brought those with cancer to IF. It has found proponents in people with polycystic ovary syndrome, which can cause irregular menstrual cycles or infertility – ditto people combating severe inflammation like arthritis or reducing type 2 diabetes. Some in my life came to it this way, via their medical needs. Coincidentally, they’ve all been women.

‘We live in an era in which male eating disorders are both rife yet totally under-discussed’

(iStock)

Now let’s look at the other camp. For shorthand, let’s call them the men who have absolutely nothing wrong with them. Before Sunak, a familiar kind of male ecosystem had been evangelising the diet. Elon Musk and Jordan Peterson have sung its praises, while it’s also been covered several times on the alpha podcast Diary of a CEO. Episodes on the topic of fasting are subtitled with terms like “Get your sex life back”, while its YouTube version deploys crude graphics that explosively tell you of a “1,300 per cent increase in testosterone!”

IF has also been the topic du jour of many a Silicon Valley exec, who as a group commonly stress a perceived increase in “longevity”, while that same desire to live a lot longer than mere mortals has interlaced with self-help gurus such as Tony Robbins who promote the concept of “biohacking”.

It’s no surprise that IF has been promoted by a certain demographic of men who think a lot about their own manliness. IF is often explained as a way for us – the overfed, over-pampered, useless modern man – to return to the purposeful days of the hunter-gatherer or caveman, where men were supposed to be able to survive just fine on a drastically scaled-back regiment of food. Bizarrely, one of this group’s biggest enemies seems to be breakfast. Ahh, poor breakfast – once feted as the most important meal of the day, now the subject of endless angry videos titled “Why breakfast is a scam”.

I will never begrudge someone for doing something that makes them feel good, but if it sounds like I have an axe to grind, it’s true, I do. My main suspicion of IF comes from the fact that – without exception – all the men I personally know who are practising it are very healthy and very thin.

I care because we live in an era in which male eating disorders are both rife and yet totally under-discussed. An estimated 10 million men and boys suffer from an eating disorder in America. One in three sufferers are men. In the UK, men like former cricketer Freddie Flintoff or actor Christopher Eccleston have tried to shift public opinions on male eating disorders by very openly discussing their experiences with bulimia and anorexia, respectively. Yet I think there’s still a sense of total denial in most of us that men can manifest these kinds of diseases.

How can they not though, when it’s becoming increasingly rare to see men in the public eye who are anything other than completely slim – something that is simply unachievable for a lot of us. As you browse online today, keep an eye out for all the slim men you see, and think of all the averagely sized or plus-sized men you don’t see. A recent Israeli study even went as far as to suggest that a hegemony of male body shapes in porn was leading men to have eating disorders. Intermittent fasting feels like just the latest thing making totally healthy men in my life do slightly barmy and extreme things.

I’ve seen it in myself since I joined a gym. I’ve hurtled into a totally new self-doubt around my own weight and physique, just by being in the same environment as men. I’ve seen it in many male friends too, after just a few scratches of the surface. I worry that when a male pal takes up extreme cycling, starts devoting themselves to gym life, begins training for an Ironman or Tough Mudder event, or starts intermittent fasting, that there’s more going on than just a basic desire for health.

As algorithmic male messaging gets more and more primal, and this bizarre evocation of the caveman continues, it’s worth checking in with your male friends more about this. Perhaps over breakfast?

For anyone struggling with the issues raised in this article, eating disorder charity Beat’s helpline is available 365 days a year on 0808 801 0677. NCFED offers information, resources and counselling for those suffering from eating disorders, as well as their support networks. Visit eating-disorders.org.uk or call 0845 838 2040



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