Religion, spirituality, food, and eating behaviors can be important sociocultural factors that are often incorporated to create a person’s social and cultural identity.1 For example, religious observances such as Ramadan, Yom Kippur, and Lent require practitioners to alter their eating behaviors for the duration of the observance.2 Most commonly, practitioners engage in fasting or restrictive food behaviors. Because of their influence on eating behaviors, religion and spirituality have become salient sociocultural factors that can exacerbate disordered eating pathology and behavioral aspects of eating disorders.2
Case studies from Turkey suggest that Ramadan may be an initiating factor for eating disorders in adolescents.3 In six case studies, adolescents were admitted to the hospital with eating disorder symptomology (e.g., restricted food intake) after the Ramadan fasting period. One adolescent reported that Ramadan made it easier to continue restricting their diet. In contrast, another reported being happy with the weight loss during the fasting period and continued to fast afterward.3
Research suggests that other religions can exacerbate disordered eating pathology too. In one study, Christian women in eating disorder treatment reported increased shame, guilt, and self-hatred when relating their eating disorder to religion and spirituality.4 Additionally, findings suggest that individuals with negative attitudes toward their religious life use religious motivations to justify disordered eating behaviors.2 This negative justification has been associated with negative psychological impacts, including feelings of depression, anxiety, self-esteem, and body dissatisfaction, which in turn exacerbate disordered eating behaviors.2
How should an individual improve their management of an eating disorder through religion?
Despite their association with shame, guilt, and disordered eating, religion, and spirituality can also positively impact eating disorder management. Integrating religion and spirituality with the medical treatment of an eating disorder has led to reduced body image-related stress, increased feelings of hope, increased feelings of spiritual worth, and increased feelings of power over an eating disorder.2 However, to be successful, the process of integrating religion with treatment must consider an individual’s cultural, social, and religious context .2 Dr. Julianne Hammer, a professor of Islamic studies and religion in the Americas at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Religious Studies Department, suggests that an individual should seek their resources and management strategies in whatever faith they practice. Dr. Hammer claims that recommendations and support from outside a religious community may not be helpful for an individual who wants to navigate their eating disorder in ways that do not compromise their religiosity.
Although religious practices can induce and exacerbate eating disorders and associated behaviors, it is essential to recognize that religion and spirituality are potential strategies for managing an eating disorder. Taking an individual’s religious, cultural, and social identities into consideration is an effective strategy of mediating an eating disorder.
1.Ysseldyk, R., Matheson, K., & Anisman, H. (2010). Religiosity as identity: Toward an understanding of religion from a social identity perspective. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 14(1), 60–71. https://doi.org/10.1177/1088868309349693
2.Rosmarin, D. H., Koenig, H. G., Richards, S. P., Weinberger-Litman, S., Berrett, M. E., & Hardman, R. K. (2020). Spirituality, religion, and eating disorders. In Handbook of spirituality, religion, and mental health (pp. 99–115). essay, Academic Press.
3.Akgül, S., Derman, O., & Kanbur, N. Ö. (2014). Fasting during Ramadan: A religious factor as a possible trigger or exacerbator for eating disorders in adolescents. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 47(8), 905–910. https://doi.org/10.1002/eat.22255
4.Marsden, P., Karagianni, E., & Morgan, J. F. (2006). Spirituality and clinical care in eating disorders: A qualitative study. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 40(1), 7–12. https://doi.org/10.1002/eat.20333
By Julian Robles