Eating disorders are mental and physical illnesses with the second highest mortality rate of all mental health disorders, affecting people across all genders, ages, races, religions, ethnicities, body shapes, and weights.
The National Eating Disorders Association estimates 20 million women and 10 million men in the US will have an eating disorder at some point in their lives. And while causes can differ between individuals, a growing consensus suggests eating disorders develop from a range of biological, psychological, and sociocultural as well as spiritual factors.
Facts and Misconceptions
According to Alice H. Churnock, licensed professional counselor and certified eating disorder specialist with Covenant Counseling and Education Center in Birmingham, Alabama, eating disorders include anorexia (restricting food), bulimia (binge eating, then purging), exercise bulimia (working out to get rid of calories or food intake), binge eating (without purging), ARFID (avoidant restrictive food intake disorder), diet bulimia (manipulating blood sugar for weight loss), and orthorexia (“righteous” or clean eating).
“[An eating disorder is] a disease of the mind and the body,” Alice explained. “People don’t choose to have an eating disorder. [They are] sick, and we have to approach them and treat them like that.”
Individuals with eating disorders are often labeled, Alice noted, as though they could just eat a hamburger to become healthy. But eating disorders are more complicated.
Alice said, “We [must] recognize that eating disorders are really not just about what [individuals are] eating, but it’s about what’s eating them and what’s causing the eating disorder. … Our job is to find out [what causes this behavior].”
Eating disorders are a form of addiction, Alice pointed out. People wrestling with eating disorders must learn to manage eating habits and receive help to develop a healthy relationship with food.
And eating disorders are not always related to body image, Alice explained. One young client developed ARFID after choking on a piece of bacon. Fear of choking again caused her to begin restrictive eating habits.
Believers Suffer Too
As with other mental health concerns, believers sometimes feel as though Christians won’t be affected by eating disorders. Alice disagrees with this mindset and instead incorporates spirituality into therapy, recognizing God is our Great Physician.
“Scripture is full of examples of people struggling with mental health disorders, whether it’s depression, anxiety, or grief,” Alice asserted.
We don’t “ignore the spiritual aspects because … ultimately God is the healer of all things. … He gives us the wisdom and the tools that we need in order to take the steps toward healing.”
Awareness and Support
Warning signs often begin with changes in habits or behavior, Alice noted. Regularly skipping meals, going to the bathroom right after meals and staying there for a long time, repeatedly making excuses not to eat with the group, choosing exercise over relationships, and restricting or being preoccupied with certain types of foods are all common red flags.
“You can be an advocate for the person by stopping the ‘fat talk,’ stopping this ‘diet culture,’” Alice instructed. “Diets don’t work. … Be an example … with your own eating habits — exercise, eat healthy, eat things that bring joy into your life.”
“Have face-to-face conversations about your concerns. I encourage people to speak fact and not just, ‘Are you OK?’”
Avoid accusing while encouraging deeper conversations, such as “I’ve noticed that you haven’t eaten anything the last three times that we’ve gone to lunch. What’s going on? How can I help?” This is more helpful, Alice explained.
Encourage them to tell someone and to seek help, too, Alice recommended. Offer to go with the person to counseling, and let him or her know you are walking alongside him or her in the journey.
For more information, visit nationaleatingdisorders.org.
Alice’s Suggested Resources
I’m Beautiful? Why Can’t I See It? by Kimberly Davidson
Perfectly Unique: Love Yourself Completely, Just As You Are by Annie Downs
You’re Already Amazing by Holley Gerth
Grace for the Good Girl by Emily Freeman
Life Without Ed by Jenni Schaefer
Almost Anorexic by Jenni Schaefer
Life Inside the “Thin” Cage by Constance Rhodes
50 Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food by Susan Albers
Food: The Good Girl’s Drug by Sunny Sea Gold
Lanell Downs Smith is a freelance writer living in Lapine, Alabama. She is a regular correspondent for The Alabama Baptist and serves as vice president for the Alabama WMU board of trustees.
Disclaimer: The information shared on this page is not meant to diagnose or treat a mental health condition. We encourage you to follow up with your health-care provider and seek a mental health professional for individual consultation and care.