To Have an Eating Disorder on Yom Kippur
Jocelyn Resnick (she/her) earned her Master of Public Health (MPH) from the George Washington University. She is a certified health education specialist (CHES) and a life and recovery coach working with women who have anxiety around food and their bodies. Jocelyn volunteers for the Blue Dove Foundation and contributes regularly to our blog and printed materials.
Trigger warning for mention of specific behavior**
In Judaism, Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the year. It is a day of reflection and repentance for the sins we have committed. It is tradition to fast on Yom Kippur, traditionally resembling a connection to God. But there are times when fasting is not the answer. In fact, for those with eating disorders, eating on Yom Kippur is considered a mitzvah.
According to Jewish law, you should not fast if you have a medical condition. An eating disorder is a mental illness that has a physical impact on the body. You should consult with your medical providers and a registered dietitian when deciding whether fasting is appropriate.
As I write this piece, I am fully recovered from a 12-year battle with anorexia nervosa and binge eating disorder. I spent roughly half of my life at war with my body. Similar to many individuals, I had been sent the message that my body needed to look a certain way in order to be worthy. I believed I would be better if I was smaller. In order to control my worth, I turned to restriction and weight loss.
When I was 15 years old, I fasted for my eating disorder–not for my sins or to connect to God. Of course, I did not admit this at the time. It was my secret. I remember the stress of eating dinner with my family. I measured and weighed every ounce of my preholiday turkey dinner. I cut the meat into small pieces to be sure I would not over-consume calories. I made sure to finish eating at the latest moment possible to ensure my metabolism was at its maximum capacity.
I fasted the following day. I remember having a terrible headache, but I plowed through and refused to eat anyway. In the evening, we arrived at a friend’s home to break the fast. I watched my friends and family stuff their faces with bagels, lox, cream cheese, quiche, cookies, cake, etc. I made sure to scoop out that excess bread from the middle of my bagel and portion out my sides. I thought, “Why on earth would I want to ruin my hard work?”
Fasting was an excuse to restrict. It made me feel like I was “good.” It was as if I could prove to the world I did something right. Losing weight was my top priority. I refused to acknowledge the impact it was having on my quality of life. Deep down, I was miserable.
I have not fasted since that day. Now, whenever I try to restrict, my brain activates a survival (fight or flight) response. When our brains sense starvation, they immediately start fueling cravings to the body. As a result, we eat more (often uncontrollably) so we are prepared for a literal famine. Of course, we are not actually going to starve, but the brain does not know the difference. Telling yourself the cookie is “off limits” creates the same physiological response as being stranded in a desert. Fasting all day and then eating large amounts of food at night mimics binge eating disorder. This is why so many of us experience a binge during the break fast. When I eat intuitively, however, I am not distracted by food. I am able to embrace the holiday without fixating on calories or weight loss.
To this day, I go back and forth about whether or not I will fast on Yom Kippur. If I were to do so, it would not be an excuse for weight loss. Fasting is a component of my religion and part of our tradition. It is symbolic to spend time reflecting on prayer and repentance rather than food. With that being said, I would be sure to eat normally before and after the fast takes place. I don’t look at it from the standpoint that food is forbidden; instead, my focus lies elsewhere.
If you are fasting in order to lose weight, I would advise you to refocus your mindset. It is important to understand and acknowledge that the fast is about finding meaning and purpose in the Jewish holiday. We choose to resist eating as a way to reconnect with our soul. Food should never be perceived as “bad.” If you have to break the fast before the holiday has ended, you are still worthy. You can connect with your Judaism in another way!
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental illness or addiction, please contact the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) for additional local resources or visit the Blue Dove Foundation’s website for national and Jewish mental health resources.