Eating Disorders: The Quest for Thinness
by Edward Welch
In this article, Ed Welch describes how easy it is, in a weight-conscious world that also uses food for comfort, to take the small steps that lead to a full blown eating disorder. He gives a road map for dealing with this difficult problem that includes understanding the thoughts and emotions that trigger destructive eating habits and then encouraging those who struggle with food addictions to take the big step of trusting God, instead of food rules and rituals.
Do you ever wish that you could just forget about food? What started as an innocent diet has turned into a monster. You eat too little. You eat too much. You restrict. You binge. It's getting harder to cover up what you are doing. At first you tried exercise, then vomiting, then laxatives. Maybe you tried cutting too. Who would have thought that food—or the fear of it—would become the center of your life? Heroin, cocaine, and other street drugs lead to addictions. But food?
But for you food is no longer . . . just food.
You know, of course, that you are not alone; many people struggle with eating disorders. It's easy to see why. Advertisers sell their products using only one slim body type; movies show impossibly thin, surgically-enhanced heroes and heroines; high-profile athletes have body fat percentages that can only be maintained with round-the-clock workouts; food is everywhere; and more than half the U.S. is on a diet. In some countries food is nutrition. Here food is nutrition, but it also means beauty, control, comfort, guilt, shame, love, and loathing.
FOOD PROBLEMS START SMALL
You began life with normal eating habits: you ate when you were hungry and didn't eat when you were full. But in a weight-conscious world, where food is used for comfort, you take small steps and “normal” gradually disappears. You want to be thin, so you become more serious about dieting. You like how food makes you feel, so you overeat and binge. Those who are close to you start noticing that food is becoming your obsession. You don't see it because your obsession has tricked you into thinking you are doing better than ever. But the truth is that your struggles with food have gained momentum, and you have become anorexic, bulimic, or both.
WHAT IS ANOREXIA?
Anorexia is all about not eating. It is an all consuming fear of fat that leads you to starve yourself. Your fear might also lead you to try constant exercising, vomiting, and/or taking laxatives. What happens when these things don't make you feel any better? Your next step might be another form of self-punishment such as cutting. When others try to help you, it's easy for you to make them into your enemy. You don't want anyone standing between you and what you believe you need.
WHAT IS BULIMIA?
Bulimia is all about overeating. A lot of food eaten secretly and rapidly is its trademark. In contrast to anorexia's control, bulimia is impulsive and out-of-control. Anorexia wants control, and seems to invite pain. Bulimia feels out-of-control, and wants comfort and relief. The two seem like complete opposites, but eventually, as your struggles with eating continue, they might look almost the same (See Figure 1). If you start as an anorexic, sooner or later you might use the same weight loss strategies as someone with bulimia. If you are bulimic, you might also use the anorexic devices of self-punishment and food restriction to make up for a binge.
Figure 1: A Map of Food-related problems
HOW DID YOU GET STUCK?
How did you get into this cycle? Most people enter this cycle as a way of dealing with troubling, unwanted feelings—anger, pain, loneliness, guilt, self-loathing, and so on (see Figure 2). Without knowing what to do with your emotions, you starve them by restricting food or comfort them by binging on food. You might feel a little better temporarily, but at some point you have to eat again, or purge what you have eaten. So you break one of your many food laws. Then you feel horrible again. So you punish yourself by starving your feelings or soothing them with food, and the cycle continues. Like a hamster on a rotating wheel, you keep running, even though you aren't getting anywhere. You have a sense that there is no way out, but you distract yourself by binging, purging, or restricting. If you stop running, the hopelessness catches up to you, so you keep going, afraid to stop and afraid to think about the future. Without noticing how it happened, you've become a slave to your own food rules.
Figure 2: A Typical Enslaving Cycle for Anorexia and Bulimia
If this comes close to describing your life, don't let hopelessness win. There is a way to break out of this cycle. It starts with you being open to the possibility that deep-down your problem is spiritual. Listen to the voices of two people who struggle with eating problems:
“Success through dieting was the key to my salvation. Success meant a perfect career, perfect control over my life, all of which depended on a perfect me, which depended on me living inside a perfect body.”
“Eating is one area of my life that no one can reach, not even God.”
Doesn't it sound as if they're describing a religion? They have laws, rituals, sacrifice, penance, idols of comfort, idols of control, and the hope of salvation. The difference is that God is not in it. This is a lifestyle that tries to manage life apart from God. Take a moment and think about what your own food rules and rituals are. How are you using your “food rules” to manage your life?
Your problem isn't new. The apostle Paul, in the book of Galatians, talks about how we are always trying to construct our own religion. When Galatians was written, people were trying to use circumcision as a way to make themselves acceptable to God, now we use different rituals, but it all comes down to the same thing—we believe we can be made right by something we do.
You might not be thinking about God at all, but deep inside you there is a desire to be “right” and “acceptable.” It's easy to substitute yourself or other people as the final judge of what it means to be right. Instead of trusting in God, you trust in yourself and in your system of food laws to make you right.
If you are thinking about God at all, you probably believe that you have to become a better person before you can have a relationship with him. You're hoping that your own laws will show you the way. Meanwhile, you are constructing a world that has no room for God. Your food rules are actually keeping God away from you. The apostle Paul explains how this works in the book of Galatians. At first glance, it might seem to you that Paul isn't talking about your struggle at all. But, as you read, replace “circumcision” and “the law” with your food rules and rituals, and you will see that he is talking about you and your struggle with food.
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised [follow food rules and rituals], Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised [follow food rules and rituals] that he is obligated to obey the whole law [every food rule perfectly, never any mistakes, never any failures]. You who are trying to be justified [made right] by law [your own food rules] have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. But by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision [neither eating too much, nor eating too little] has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. (Galatians 5:1–6)
There is a way out: “by faith,” “through the Spirit,” and “faith working through love.” It is not rule keeping that saves you; it is your faith in Jesus that makes you clean, holy, and right (Romans 1:17; 8:1).
Sound easy? It is. It's rest rather than work. It's trust in Another rather than independence. But, as you probably know, trust might be the last thing you want to do. Your quest for independence is one reason you dabbled in eating problems. You know that trust means giving up your own religion where food is at the center, and you are not likely to give that up easily. The only way you could trust God is to be absolutely certain that he is trustworthy. And he is.
How do you know that? Find out for yourself by looking at what God did when he came to earth as a man. Pick up a Bible, and read a little bit every day from the book of John. Underline everything you read that shows you how trustworthy Jesus is. Notice especially how he treated people; think about why he died, and what his resurrection means for you. Jesus gave up his life for you. You can trust him with your life today. You can give up your food rules and follow him. You can, “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7).
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This article is adapted from the first half of the booklet, Eating Disorders: The Quest for Thinness, copyright © 2008 by Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation. Used by permission of New Growth Press and may not be downloaded and/or reproduced without prior written permission of New Growth Press.
The complete booklet, Eating Disorders: The Quest for Thinness, including the section “Practical Strategies for Change” may be purchased from New Growth Press at www.newgrowthpress.com (or just click the linked title above).
Edward Welch is a counselor and faculty member at CCEF and holds a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology with a neuro-psychology specialty from the University of Utah as well as a Master of Divinity degree from Biblical Theological Seminary. Ed has been counseling for over twenty-six years and has written many books and articles on biblical counseling, including the best selling titles: When People are Big and God is Small, Addictions: a Banquet in the Grave, Blame it on the Brain, Depression, Running Scared: Fear, Worry and the God of Rest and his newest release, a curriculum entitled Crossroads: A Step-by-Step Guide Away from Addiction. His written work and speaking ministry, which is characterized by sound biblical exposition and paired with dynamic practical application, is in great demand by today's modern church. Ed and his wife, Sheri, have two married daughters and two grandchildren. In his spare time, Ed enjoys hanging out with his wife, is the glad owner of a growing guitar collection and competes in the Master's swim event where he placed fourth in the country. Areas of interest/experience: depression and addictions.
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