Eating disorders can be a difficult topic to discuss. Sufferers and their families often experience great shame, and the disorders are not easily treated. Sadly, eating disorders are not uncommon in Western culture. Psychologists and other professionals now recognize three distinct eating disorders, as well as disordered eating, which does not fit into one of the three categories.
Anorexia nervosa is a disorder in which a person will not maintain a normal weight (85 percent or less of the weight that would be considered normal for a person of the same age and height), is fearful of weight gain, and has a distorted image of his or her body (often believing he or she is fat or not admitting the seriousness of his or her low body weight). People with anorexia nervosa maintain their low body weights either through restricting food or, at times, through developing bingeing/purging behavior. Bulimia nervosa is characterized by recurrent episodes of binge eating (eating more than would be considered normal in a particular amount of time and doing so with a sense of lack of control) and recurrent purging (through vomiting, laxative use, or even excessive exercise). Self-evaluation for people with bulimia nervosa depends on body shape and weight more so than for others, though most people with bulimia nervosa are within a normal weight range (perhaps a little below or above normal weight). Binge eating disorder has been newly classified. It is essentially a disorder in which a person engages in binge eating without compensatory or purging behaviors. Compulsive overeating or food addiction is not specifically classified as an eating disorder, though it certainly is disordered eating and often includes obsessive thoughts about food. (Some people consider gluttony an eating disorder, but for the purposes of this article, we will not address it. Please see our article on gluttony.)
Polls report differing numbers, but at least 1 out of every 10 women will have experienced an eating disorder at some time in her life, and some polls suggest that as many as 1 out of 4 will. Eating disorders do not only affect women, either: approximately 10 percent of those with an eating disorder are men.
Eating disorders have many reported causes: chemical imbalance, genetic factors, stress, anxiety, inability to express emotions productively, a desire for control, perfectionistic or obsessive compulsive personality traits, media, and unhealthy relationships. Often, people with eating disorders struggle with depression and have a negative (or at least extremely low) view of self. This self-hatred, demand for personal perfection, or sense that one can and must control his own environment can be destructive to the health and well-being of one’s body and spirit. It also can have profound effects on the sufferer’s family.
Eating disorders are not God’s plan for us. Bingeing, purging, and starving are not God’s way of caring for our bodies (Psalm 139; 1 Corinthians 6:19–20; Romans 14:7–8). Whether because of a biological anomaly, emotional maladaption, misunderstanding of human value, hurt caused by others, or any of the other triggers for eating disorders, it is not God's desire for a person to persist in eating disordered behavior or thinking.
The battle against eating disorders is more than just physical; it is mental and spiritual. Medical doctors, Christian counselors, and pastors should all be made part of the healing process. Letting the Word of God transform our thinking is key. The world seeks to conform us to a certain way of thinking and a certain standard of beauty; we must be reconditioned by the Word of God and allow our minds to be transformed (see Romans 12:1–2). The Bible assures us of God’s great love for us. We are His creation, His handiwork, made in His image (Genesis 1:27–28; Psalm 139; Ephesians 2:1–10). He loves us and accepts us in Christ regardless of our weight or how we look or what foods we eat. We can trust that God is in control, and we can rest in His capable hands. We do not need to take our anxieties out on our bodies through our eating, but can turn them over to God, knowing He loves us (1 Peter 5:7). We can use food to nourish our bodies, wanting to care for them as a way to honor God. We can also enjoy the pleasures of food in freedom and with gratitude to God for His good gifts. Whatever prompts our disordered thinking and behaviors, we can take that to God, seeking His truth and trusting that God can heal any pain and overcome any hurt.
The journey to health and wholeness may be long, but Jesus has set Christians free (Galatians 5:1). The Holy Spirit has the power to break the bondage of eating disorders. If we are in Christ, that power is available to us (Romans 8:9–11). Followers of Christ need not be defined by eating disorders; our identity is first in Christ, and He is with us in all of our hardships (John 16:33). Whether health and wholeness looks like complete release from the draw of an eating disorder or healthy care of our bodies through reliance on God even in the midst of struggle, God is at work in us: “I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen” (Ephesians 3:16–21).