Preying on the Vulnerable: Intermittent Fasting Apps Are Becoming Harder to Ignore

Preying on the Vulnerable: Intermittent Fasting Apps Are Becoming Harder to Ignore By Timberline Knolls Staff

If you follow certain people or brands or search certain topics on social media, they’re difficult to miss.

A recent VICE article discussed the rise of paid-for targeted advertisements on social media platforms — Instagram, in particular — that promote intermittent fasting apps. This practice of restricting the hours a person eats during the day to specific windows is nothing particularly new. It’s been around for centuries in various forms and exists in certain religious practices.

The danger of the Instagram-intrusive ads lies in the possible triggering reactions. As one woman interviewed by VICE put it, “It’s deeply unsettling to see something advertised which helps and encourages you to disrupt your relationship with food.”

At the minimum, these can be emotionally activating for those who have a history of eating disorders, but the ramifications for younger people who haven’t struggled with disordered eating are especially troubling. At places like TikTok, where 37% of the U.S. audience is in their teens, that’s particularly scary. Most of the apps in these paid campaigns don’t allow users younger than 16, but it doesn’t take much for someone to fudge their birthdate to gain access.

The triggering effects and potential introduction to something that can lead to disordered eating are obvious concerns, and these apps seem to be taking advantage of the premise that there’s still so little we know about the positives and negatives of intermittent fasting.

Both experts VICE spoke with — a registered dietitian and a registered nutritionist — said that there was no large body of evidence suggesting that intermittent fasting has any health benefits. There’s no data available on the effects of intermittent fasting on clinically important outcomes such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, or life expectancy. According to Psychology Today, several studies found an association between delayed eating and an increased risk for developing episodes of overeating and binge eating.

For anyone who has a history of eating disorders intermittent fasting is a no-go unless under the close supervision of a physician. But for someone who is scrolling through Instagram and constantly seeing ads promoting the positives of intermittent fasting, there is no “other side.” It’s a way to deliver consistent, cumulative reminders to the brain that maybe this method will work — especially in the era of COVID-19 and increased isolation.

As one woman told VICE: “Lockdown has been a nightmare for people with EDs, and promoting these apps just looks like preying on the vulnerable.”

If you have a history of disordered eating or are simply feeling vulnerable, help is available. Contact the Multi-Service Eating Disorders Association (MEDA) toll-free at (888) 350-4049 or visit Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center’s website, www.timberlineknolls.com, for additional resources.