Category Archives: Eating Disorders

The Religion of Health

Health is the new religion. It’s almost cult-like, but instead of “Drink the Kool-aid” it’s “Get on this diet with us” or “Do this cleanse with me.” The act of getting healthy has become an act of worship to our bodies, but rather than shaping a golden calf from various and a sundry gold, our bodies are molded to the shape of food rules, diet plans, cleanses, and “green and clean”  food.

I was part of the health religion for over 13 years, following the laws of health and the religious rituals of eating and exercising. Every food and exercise decision had to adhere to the rules of my religion, which could be summed up in its own set of commandments:

1) Thou shalt honor thy body first and foremost

2) Thou shalt never be fat

3) Thou shalt remain thin and tone 

4) Thou shalt never eat sugar

5) Thou shalt count all carbs

6) Thou shalt track all calories

7) Thou shalt ignore all cravings

8) Thou shalt only eat good fats and clean food

9) Thou shalt exercise to reconcile calories in and calories out

10) Thou shalt never rest

If any of these commandments are broken, thou shall suffer the internal shame and anguish of laziness, disobedience, over-indulgence, selfishness, ugliness, sickness, disloyalty to thy body, and furthermore shall be deemed “unhealthy” and suffer the societal offenses associated with unhealthiness and judgements associated with fatness and the mental angst associated with unworthiness.

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Think of what an abusive, controlling relationship looks like. When you don’t follow the expectations of an abusive partner, they get upset and will find ways to devalue you as a person, whether they physically hurt you, manipulate your emotions with guilt and shame, or verbally chastise how unworthy you are with their language toward you. Over time, your life revolves around controlling yourself and/or your environment, regardless of your actual needs and feelings, to keep your partner from getting upset and hurting you. But you never know for sure what is going to set them off or if you’ve done enough to earn their love. There is constant worry and anxiety of whether you’ve followed the rules well enough to keep from getting hurt and if you’ve earn your value as your partner’s partner.

In the religiosity of health, Health became my abusive partner. I was constantly under pressure to earn my value as healthy. I engaged in behaviors, rituals, and beliefs that would force and control my body to look and be certain way so I could be deemed as “healthy” and thus worthy of belonging and validity in the religion. My body had become my idol and working out and “eating right” were religious acts to worship my body.

Whatever was happening with my body would dictate how I felt about myself and life. When my weight went down, I felt righteous in my health decisions; I felt good about myself; I wore my clothes proudly; I walked a little taller. Only for a moment, though, because something in media or life—an article, a picture, a comment—would cause me doubt that I had done enough to perfect my body—to please my idol. When my weight went up, even by a pound or two, then I would feel ashamed, frustrated, and even angry at my inability to stay disciplined enough in my religious acts to stay healthy.

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Because of the consequences I both believed and feared if I didn’t adhere to the commandments of health, my whole life revolved around my body and my food. Every decision of the day was related to how it was going to affect my body… from how I scheduled my day to get my exercise in, to what I did or didn’t eat, to when I did or didn’t eat, to how hard I pushed myself in a workout.

Every meal became a number: how many calories, how much sugar, size-of-portion, how many ounces, what time did I last eat?

Every workout became a number: how many minutes did I go, how many miles did I go, how many did I do, how many calories did I burn?

My body became a number: how much did I weigh, what size was I wearing?

Numbers became the way for me to measure whether or not I was following the rules to avoid the consequences of unhealthiness. But I was never completely certain that I was following the rules well enough and if my body was good enough to be deemed healthy. With Health as both my religious leader and my abusive partner, there was never validation… only more rules and more threats about what would happen if I was not healthy. Whatever honor/value I thought I’d earned for my body–meaning the external praise I received for my body and health from other people–I was terrified of losing. So I was constantly trying to “maintain” my body and thus the honor of “being healthy.” The obsession with my health caused deep anxiety and deep dissatisfaction with my body and myself as a whole. I was tired, stressed, worried, and deeply sick both physically and mentally.

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In my relationship with Jesus, my life was about honoring my body rather than honoring God. I was in relationship with God, but devoted my body to the religion of health.

In my relationship with God there are no rules, and I do nothing to earn His love. I am worthy in this life simply because He created me. But for over a decade (and probably most of my life) the depth of that belief only went so far. I entered into this distorted side-religion and abusive relationship that required so much of  me and made me feel anxious and at constant risk of unworthiness. I had to let go of health as a separate religion and give my body back to God. Through recovery and disconnection from health rules (also known as the diet mentality), I re-entered into relationship with my body, which is a physical extension of my relationship with God. There are no rules in relationships. There is respect, trust, compassion, and love in relationships but not rules.

I no longer follow the rules of what’s “healthy” or “not healthy,” but rather I follow the intuition and physical body cues God has given me to nourish myself. I respond to my body and its needs without judgement and with respect, trust, compassion, and love. Like any relationship, I am not blissfully happy inside my body every day, and I am not goo-goo over God every minute of the day. I’m still human and experience human feelings of discouragement, frustration, and anger. But as a whole I live in peace inside my body and away from the religiosity of health.

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How about you… Do you ever feel pressure in your quest for health? When is the last time you felt worthy or valuable inside the body you have right now?  Does health feel like an abusive religion to you? Have you ever thought about trusting God with your body?

What NOT to say to someone with an eating disorder

When you have a friend or family member who either has an active eating disorder or is in recovery from an eating disorder, it’s important to be mindful and respectful of what you say to avoid triggering your loved one into disordered and harmful behaviors. Eating disorders are mental illnesses, so flippant talk around food, body, and dieting reinforces distorted beliefs your loved one may have about his/her own body and food habits, thus spiraling them further into their disorder and/or making their road to recovery far more difficult that it already is.

Not to mention you need to be kind and gracious to yourself. Negative and judgmental comments around your own food and body beliefs can have harsh effects on your own mental health and sense of well being.

Unfortunately, much of the harmful talk we hear or speak around food and body value is so normal in our culture, we often don’t realize we’re being hurtful or dangerous. The following list of comments is not an exhaustive list of the commentary that is harmful to both you and your loved one, but these are the most common phrases of which to be aware (and that I hear and/or have had spoken to me).

DIET TALK

  • “You should try ___________ diet.”
  • “I’ve been on __________ diet and feel so much healthier.”
  • “I am so much healthier since being on _______ diet.”
  • “I need to go back on _________ diet.”
  • “I can’t eat that because I am on __________ diet.”
  • “I am trying this new _________ plan. My friend/daughter/mom/husband/coworker has had great results!”
  • “I’ve lost so much weight on this ______ diet. I feel great!”
  • “I’ve heard _______ diet is so great. You want to do it with me?”
  • “It’s not a diet. It’s a lifestyle change.”
  • “This is more of a wellness plan. Not a diet.”
  • “My office is doing a weight loss challenge; we’re on day ______.”
  • “I’m on day ____ of _____ diet. I feel_______.”
  • “What diet are you on? You look great!”
  • “Let’s do _______ together and then compare. We can hold each other accountable.”

BODY IMAGE TALK

  • “I feel fat.”
  • “I am so fat.”
  • “Ugh. My _______ is/are so fat.”
  • “I’ve gained ________ pounds.”
  • “I’ve lost _________ pounds.”
  • “I didn’t lose weight but I lost inches.”
  • “I hate how these pants/ this shirt looks on me.”
  • ” I hate my __________.”
  • “You want to look through my clothes? I’ve lost so much weight I don’t fit into them anymore.”
  • “You are so skinny. I hate you.”
  • “Those pants are so slimming.”
  • “This color camouflages my rolls.”
  • “I can’t wear______. They make me look fat.”
  • “Have you lost weight? You look amazing!”
  • “How do you stay so fit/thin?”
  • “I just read an article that says if you exercise ________ per day/times per week you lose ______ pounds!”
  • “I don’t want to lose weight but maybe just tone/tighten up a bit.”

FOOD TALK

  • “This is so bad for me/you.”
  • “You should try ________. It is so good for you!”
  • “This has like _________ calories. I am so bad.”
  • “I’m going to need to work this off at the gym later.”
  • “This doesn’t fit with my _______ diet/plan, but I’m just going to cheat.”
  • “This is so unhealthy, but I don’t care.”
  • “This is so much healthier than ______.”
  • “Today is my cheat day!”
  • “I am such a _______ addict. I have no self-control around __________.”
  • “I haven’t eaten this in so long, I’m just going to indulge.”
  • “I’m going to be good.”
  • “I’ve been so good all week, I deserve this treat.”
  • “Ugh. I can’t eat that. I’ve been so bad lately.”
  • “I am going to have the ______, but without the ______ so it’s healthier.”
  • “Well it’s not the healthiest choice, but….”
  • “Did you know _______ is so bad? Studies have shown.”
  • “Are you going to eat all of that?”
  • “Is that all you’re going to eat?”
  • “I just ate _______ servings. I am such a cow.”
  • “I already had my amount for the day.”
  • “I read an article that said you should eat ________.

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When in doubt about whether or not to say something, here’s a little tool I learned from my son: THINK

T: Is it THOUGHTFUL?
H: Is it HELPFUL?
I: Is it INSPIRING?
N: Is it NECESSARY? (This is the most important one to consider.)
K: Is it KIND (to both yourself and your loved one)?

What are some other comments you’ve either heard or said that might be better left unsaid?

America has an eating disorder

America has an eating disorder. We eat by numbers, rules, regulations. We make decisions about the food we eat based on fear, anxiety, and righteous attitude. We restrict, omit, and regiment selected nutrients and food groups.

Our culture has great angst about obesity, weight gain, and body shape. We fear food and weight-related diseases and build our diets and exercises around these fears. We’re scared to be fat. So we put nutrition labels on everything as a tool to help control and avoid fat. We put devices on our wrists and smart phones to track every bite, every step, every heart beat to makes sure we don’t get fat.

We have countless diets and cleanses and every kind of work out program; we have diet pills and calorie strategies; we have workout equipment and memberships; we have safe foods, bad foods, healthy foods, demon foods, healthier foods, poison foods, clean foods. We avoid calories, save calories, burn calories.

We’ve got teachers teaching kids how to read nutrition labels and hanging their snacks on the wall in categories “HEALTHY”  and “NOT HEALTHY.” My eight-year-old daughter came home agitated because the girls at lunch were claiming her chocolate milk was bad for her, but M’s was okay because it was “healthier” as determined by the lesser grams of sugar. L didn’t agree about either one because her mom said all chocolate milk is bad for you.

Our culture calls all of this “being healthy,” but really it’s all to avoid “being fat.”

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We aren’t healthy, though. We’re anxious because… not enough steps, too many calories, not high enough heart rate, too much on the scale, too much on the plate, still craving “that thing,” not enough days at the gym, gave in, no self-control, pants don’t fit, back fat, tummy fat, butt fat, arm jiggle, thigh gap, not buff enough, not strong enough, no muscle definition, need to lose more, need to have better habits, need to work harder, faster, longer, need to restrict more, need a new diet, need better control…

Despite all the tools, rules, and media information, America still has an obesity crisis. Yet we also have a growing crisis of anorexia and bulimia in our youngest and most precious kiddos. There is something much deeper and more troubling going on here.

I don’t believe our culture is overindulgent. I don’t believe we lack self-control in our lives. I don’t believe we are bad people. I believe as a culture, we’re very sick and we need recovery. We’ve become disconnected from our bodies, obsessed with food as something to be feared rather than enjoyed, and distorted in our understanding of what it means to be kind to ourselves and our bodies.

Eating disorders are not about food. Eating disorders are not about weight. Eating disorders are the compulsive behavior and thought patterns that are rooted in distorted beliefs about food and body. Eating disorders are evidenced by extreme anxiety about food, body image, exercise. America has an eating disorder.

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Want to learn more? Click on the free guide below:

The most important thing to know about eating disorders

One thing you should know about eating disorders is that there’s more than one thing to know, because eating disorders are multi-dimensional mental illnesses. In honor of National Eating Disorder Awareness Week  I want to give you my top three things that are important to understand about eating disorders, whether you have one, think you might have one, or have a friend/family member who is struggling with one.

1) Eating disorders have no single cause. Eating disorders are biological, psychological, physiological, social and familial, which means experiences, beliefs, trauma, and behaviors that start/happen in any of these areas will be exacerbated and distorted by experiences, beliefs, trauma, and behaviors in the other areas.

For example, I grew up in a household with emotional and mental trauma (familial, psychological); experienced bullying in school and had an abusive romantic-relationship (social & psychological); believed I was slow, ugly, and stupid (psychological); had disordered eating habits/behaviors that threw off both my metabolism and ability to read my body cues properly (biological and physiological); and struggled with anxiety and depression (familial, psychological, physiological)

So, if anyone has ever asked you “Why do you have an eating disorder?” or you’ve asked yourself, “Why does my loved one have an eating disorder?”–there are many reasons!

2)   Eating disorders don’t make sense to those who don’t have one. There is nothing logical about starving yourself (anorexia), eating more than your body can handle (binge eating disorder), throwing up after you eat (bulimia nervosa), or eating a strictly righteous “healthy only” diet (orthorexia nervosa). It’s important to understand that all of these eating disorders have nothing to do with the food itself or even the symptoms of the disorders. Eating disorders are diagnosed by the compulsive behaviors and thought patterns that stem from distorted beliefs about the body and food and overall self. You can’t attach logic or use logic to solve or change behaviors that are rooted in distorted beliefs. The beliefs have to change before the behaviors will, and that takes professional help!

If you’ve ever said to yourself or to a loved one “Just eat” or “Just stop binging” or “Just stop throwing up,” please understand that no one with an eating disorder can “just” do or not do anything. It would be like the brakes in your car failing and your passenger telling you to “just stop.” You can’t because the brakes are broken. With eating disorders, the brain is broken; eating disorders are mental illnesses.

3). Eating disorder recovery is 100% possible! Recovery takes professional help with a team of specialists who deeply understand the nature of eating disorders, who know how to properly care for the physical damage done by the disorder, and who are extensively sensitive to the mental misfires that are happening in the brain.

There are different schools of thought on whether or not eating disorders can be completely healed or if you simply remain in recovery your whole life, similar to that of an alcoholic. I can say from personal experience that my body is completely healed from the damage done by anorexia; however, my brain is still recovery and may always be because the mental paths worn by the eating disorder for 13 years are deep and automatic, especially when I am stressed, sad, disappointed, or even just tired. My healthy voice (healthy beliefs, thoughts, and behaviors learned in recovery) take effort when the eating disorder is loud. But most days my healthy-self is intuitive and strong.

Last but not least–

If you think you might have an eating disorder or want to seek help for a loved one you can call the National Eating Disorder Association helpline: 1(800) 931-2237 or they have an online chat option.

You can also visit my Resources page for some helpful places to get started.