Disordered eating is a significant issue in the church. No matter how many people you have in your congregation, you have people who are struggling in some way with destructive eating habits.
About 8 million people in the United States struggle with eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia or any of the iterations of those behaviors.1 Those numbers get even higher when speaking more broadly on the issues of overeating, being overweight or obese. In an average congregation, approximately two-thirds of the people are overweight, and one-third would be considered obese.2
It’s helpful for you to understand some of the complex factors involved with disordered and destructive eating and to have a strategy to better help those who come to you with this problem.
Why do people eat destructively?
The motivations for destructive eating are across the board. Here are a few common emotions and reasonings that spur people to develop and continue patterns of destructive eating.
Fear or anxiety: Some people eat, binge, or starve themselves out of fear or anxiety. They may try to anesthetize their souls by eating, which in part impacts the way they feel physiologically because it can raise their blood sugar. Perhaps someone is anxious about something that may be happening in his or her life; that person eats in order to assuage that feeling.
Anger: Some people eat—or starve themselves—because they’re angry and they want to punish themselves or others.
Sadness: There are people who eat because they’re sad, and there are people who don’t eat because they’re sad. There are certainly examples of this in Scripture. Hannah didn’t eat because she was grieved over her barrenness (1 Sam. 1:7).
Comfort: The motive for many people’s destructive eating can be to comfort themselves. They may feel bad about something that is going on in their life, and they don’t think they can find comfort anywhere else, so they comfort themselves by eating.
Punishment: People can eat destructively because they’re trying to punish themselves or others. Perhaps a young girl is angry with the pressure that has been put on her, so she starves herself, or she binges and purges, or she overeats.
Guilt: People frequently eat because they feel guilty, and they want to get rid of or lessen those feelings of guilt. Of course it doesn’t work, but while they are actually eating, they’re distracted briefly from that feeling of guilt.
Perfectionism/Control: Sometimes there is a motive of perfectionism. “I need to be perfect. I need to be able to control everything in my life. Maybe I can’t control what’s going on in my home, but I can control this.” It’s a desire to control for attaining self-perfection.
Want an additional perspective on this issue? Read 5 things pastors can learn from my anorexia.
The thinking behind destructive eating habits
A person with destructive eating habits can have erroneous thoughts that have begun to function as idols as the thoughts dominate the person’s daily thinking. Here are just a few examples of untrue thinking behind disordered eating habits.3
I’ll get the attention I deserve: Some people may think their eating disorder will give them a degree of power over their family. “If my family thinks I’m sick, then they’ll pay more attention to me.”
I can prove something by this: A young woman might have had a mother, for instance, who was overweight and dieting all the time, and the young woman can’t stand to think she’ll spend her life like that: “I’ll never be out of control like that. I’m going to prove that I’m stronger than her.”
I deserve to eat when I’m upset: For some people, eating is the only way they know to handle negative emotions. “I’m angry at my boss, but I’m afraid to confront him. I deserve to eat this food instead.” “I’m depressed, so I will comfort myself with ice cream.”
My self-worth will increase: Many people believe our culture’s lies about appearance, such as, “You only have worth if you are thin.” “Fat people are losers.” “Only thin people are truly happy.” Their god might be “I must be thin so I can have worth.”
How to help someone with life-dominating eating problems
Advise the person to consult a medical professional
It’s very important for people with habitual practices of self-starvation, bulimia, and overeating to be evaluated and cared for by a physician. Severe medical problems, and even death, can occur in some cases. Advise your counselee to see a doctor.
Perform an attitude check before entering the counseling/care room
Perhaps you have not experienced weight concerns, yo-yo dieting, or destructive eating habits personally. So, what attitude should you bring into the counseling/care room? An attitude of humility. Perhaps you don’t struggle with starving yourself or overeating, and perhaps you’re very disciplined about your eating, but remember with humility that you do have something in your life that you consistently struggle with. So maybe it’s not eating, but maybe it’s anger. Or maybe it’s self-righteousness. Or maybe it’s laziness.
Whenever we walk into a counseling room with someone who is dealing with something that is not in our experience, we can instantaneously understand what it’s like to walk in his or her shoes when we remember how we struggle against sin ourselves, and yet find ourselves failing so many times.
Remind the person of the gospel
To help people who come to you with eating issues, remind them of the wonderful truths of the gospel—that they are loved and welcomed. As Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, has said, “We’re more sinful and flawed than we ever dared believe, but we’re more loved and welcomed than we ever dared hope.”
The good news is the hope that even though people may continue to struggle, they doesn’t have to wallow in guilt or shame because of the troubles they have with their eating. Instead, they can know they are completely loved and welcomed by the God who sees them, sees their motives, and has forgiven them for all their sins, if they have repented.
Let them know that God transforms hearts
The wonderful hope is that Christ transforms the heart. The work that God is doing in the person who seeks to change a destructive eating habit is not primarily an outward work, although it will eventuate in outward life change, Lord willing. What God is doing to give that person hope is to transform his or her heart.
Help the person renew his or her mind about food
Help people who struggle with destructive eating habits see that their choices are sinful. And give them new ways of evaluating their eating behaviors. I’ve come up with twelve questions, which I describe more fully in my book Love to Eat, Hate to Eat, to help people renew their minds about food and help them make wise eating choices. To help people remember them, I use the acrostic “D-I-S-C-I-P-L-I-N-E-D Eating.”
- Doubt: Do I doubt I can eat this food without sinning? (Rom. 14:23)
- Idolatry: Does eating this particular food demonstrate a heart of independence or a heart longing for pleasure? (Exod. 20:3)
- Stumble: If I eat this, will it cause a weaker Christian to stumble? (Rom. 14:21)
- Covet: Am I eating this because I saw someone else with it and I’m coveting it? (Coveting food seen online or in TV commercials?) (Exod. 20:17)
- Inroad: If I eat this, will it create an inroad for sin? (Will it make me want to sin more?) (Rom. 13:14)
- Praise: Can I eat this food with praise and gratitude? (1 Tim. 4:4)
- Life: Would eating this harm my health in any way? (Exod. 20:13)
- Illustrate: Am I modeling good eating habits for others and encouraging them to be self-disciplined, or do I encourage others to self-indulge? (1 Tim. 4:12)
- No: Am I able to say no to this even if I know that I can eat it without sin? (1 Cor. 9:27)
- Emotions: Does the desire to eat flow out of a heart of anger, fear, frustration, or depression? (Gal. 5:22–23)
- Distract: Will preparing or eating this food distract me from something better that God has for me to do? (Luke 10:41–42)
- Enslaved: Does it bring me under any kind of bondage? (1 Cor. 6:12)
The person you’re helping may respond that they can’t remember all of these questions. And it will take time to remember them and the verses that support them. But in the short-term, all the questions are summed up by this one question, based upon 1 Corinthians 10:31: In my eating and drinking, am I glorifying God?
Since eating is so much a part of life, eating disorders are often life-dominating problems. And because eating patterns are habitual, changing them has to become one of the main endeavors of the person’s life. The people you’re helping will need to learn to practice godliness on a daily basis, and this takes time. So you’ll need to be patient with them.
Encourage accountability and a thought-out response plan
It would help if the person has a friend or friends who will encourage and hold him or her accountable to eat wisely. Also consider suggesting that the person come up with a step-by-step list of how to respond when tempted to eat in ways that don’t glorify God. The person’s list might look light this:
- Cry out to God for help, and remember He’s promised to never leave me or forsake me.
- Focus my thoughts on God’s goodness and His wonderful blessings in my life.
- Remember that my old desires or idols have never helped me find peace or joy.
- Call my accountability partner and ask him or her for prayer.
- Go out for a walk, if possible, or move myself away from the kitchen to another room.
Let the Lord be your source of hope
People struggling with eating disorders will share many experiences, thought patterns, and habits. However, never forget that each person you care for with an eating disorder is unique. Some will have a shorter race to run than others. Some will have more sin patterns to strip off in order to run freely. Still others are fainthearted and weary. All require a different response (1 Thess. 5:14). And all require your patience.
But as you minister to them, let the Lord be the source of your hope. And trust that He is able to transform people with destructive eating habits so they can say, “I hunger and thirst, my Lord, only for You.” Assuming you are helping a fellow Christian, God’s sanctifying work should also be the source of your member or counselee’s confidence in the fact that change is coming. As Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 5:23–24, “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it” (emphasis added).
Elyse’s book Love to Eat, Hate to Eat: Breaking the Bondage of Destructive Eating Habits is a good book to recommend to people in your church who are seeking to identify destructive eating habits and break the vicious cycle of emotional eating through hope-filled, God-given heart change.
- “Eating Disorder Statistics,” South Carolina Department of Mental Health, accessed September 7, 2016, http://www.state.sc.us/dmh/anorexia/statistics.htm.
- “Overweight and Obesity Statistics,” National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, accessed September 7, 2016, https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/health-statistics/Pages/overweight-obesity-statistics.aspx.
- For more examples and a more in-depth discussion on the points in this article, see my book Love to Eat, Hate to Eat: Breaking the Bondage of Destructive Eating Habits.