Fasting for religious reasons is an age-old practice. However, it has recently received some criticism suggesting it could be contributing to dangerous eating disorders or unsafe eating behaviors.
To determine whether these criticisms had merit, a team of researchers from the University of Helsinki, Finland worked to conduct what is believed to be the first study ever to examine a potential connection between religiosity and anorexia nervosa in a nationwide setting.
“Many medieval saints fasted themselves to death. The most famous of them was St. Catherine of Siena,” said Associate Professor Anna Keski-Rahkonen, who led the recent study.
“But nobody has looked into this issue in any systematic way. We wanted to examine whether religiosity is associated with a higher risk of anorexia nervosa in modern women.”
For the study, the team followed over 3,000 women from the Finnish Twin Cohorts from the age of 16 into their mid-20’s. According to their findings, published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, religious fasting or religiosity have no discernable relationship with the development of actual eating disorders.
“We found that religiosity does not appear to be a central factor in the development of anorexia nervosa in Finland, a highly secularized Christian country,” said Dr. Pyry Sipilä, who analyzed the data and authored the article.
“Being raised in a highly religious family is also not associated with an increased risk of anorexia nervosa.”
While the findings suggest religious fasting is not a “gateway drug” that could lead to an eating disorder in an otherwise healthy person, it is important to mention it may not be healthy for someone already living with an eating disorder. This study didn’t explore the effect of religious fasting behavior in those with an eating disorder, but it is believed the practice could make the condition worse or speed the development of related health issues in those with eating disorders.
The researchers also caution that Finland is not the ideal location to study the effects of religious fasting, as the practice is “quite rare” in the largely Protestant nation.
“Many Protestants don’t observe Lent. Ideally, this study should be repeated in a country where fasting during religious festivals is very common.”