Destructive Eating Behaviors (Part 1)

Elyse FitzpatrickBy Elyse Fitzpatrick13 Minutes

Excerpt from Love to Eat, Hate to Eat: Breaking the Bondage of Destructive Eating Habits by Elyse Fitzpatrick


Destructive Eating Behaviors

Little children, guard yourselves from idols.
—1 John 5:21


Let’s devote time to looking at three destructive eating behaviors: anorexia, bulimia, and compulsive overeating. Even if you don’t habitually practice any of these behaviors, let me encourage you to read this material because you may find it helpful to know the dynamics involved in them.

For several reasons that I have included in the endnotes,¹ I am not comfortable using the labels anorexia, bulimia, and compulsive. For the sake of brevity, however, I’ll just refer you to those notes. Please understand that when I use the terms, I don’t mean that anorexia, bulimia, or compulsive overeating are diseases in the same sense that polio is a disease. I believe they are chosen, life-dominating behaviors. Since we are responsible for them, we can have the hope that, as we rely on the power of the Holy Spirit, we can change.

I fully understand that the behaviors involved in binge eating, purging, and self-starvation seem so strong, so involuntary, that it appears they are diseases. We feel like we can’t control them. We feel drawn to the refrigerator. This feeling is a strong physical sensation. We feel like we have an illness. I do recognize the enslaving power of sinful habits. I know these life-dominating sins feel like sickness. We feel so helpless—like we’re being attacked from outside. Let me encourage you once again not to look for the answer that seems easy, but instead to press on to find God’s truth about your problems.

Everything I have said so far in this book can be applied to all three categories of destructive eating behaviors. I understand you will have to take these truths and tailor them to your particular behavior, but I believe that, at heart, each one involves the same issue: an inordinate love for or focus on food, which the Bible calls gluttony. There are, of course, differences in how this excessive focus on food plays out. Let’s take time to look at some of the unique differences, and then seek a fuller understanding of God’s perspective on them.

Defining the Terms

Anorexia Nervosa is habitual, self-induced starvation resulting in extreme weight loss. This weight loss is usually accomplished through rigid dieting, radical exercise routines, and purging, or any combination of these measures.

Bulimia, which literally means “ox-like appetite,” is characterized by the consumption of large quantities of food, which is usually followed by some type of purging behavior, such as self-induced vomiting, overuse of laxatives, overexercising, or self-imposed starvation.

Compulsive overeating is the practice of habitually overeating when not hungry, feeling “out of control” around food, eating large amounts of food without really tasting or enjoying it, or habitually eating when emotionally upset.

As you can see, the person who practices any of these behaviors is not your general run-of-the-mill dieter who works for a couple of weeks to lose five or ten pounds before her class reunion. No, the person who practices them is completely overcome by them. The pleasure or satisfaction derived from them is extremely short-lived, if present at all, and the enslaving power of these habits is immense. That’s why I believe it is appropriate to refer to them as life-dominating practices. Every facet of the anorectic’s life—her thoughts, words, actions, and desires—is influenced and controlled by her desire to be thin.

The Physiological Effects

The habitual practice of anorexia (self-starvation) also results in serious deterioration of the body, including the cessation of menstruation and diminishing thyroid function, resulting in brittle hair and nails, dry skin, cold intolerance, and constipation. With the depletion of fat, the body temperature becomes lower. A delicate, downy hair (lanugo) forms over the skin. Electrolyte imbalance creates regular heart rhythms, heart failure, and decreased bone density.²

The habitual practice of bulimia has many serious physiological effects: the erosion of the esophagus and teeth, increased inability to digest food, involuntary vomiting, bowel irregularity or extreme diarrhea, absence of menstruation, slow or irregular heartbeat, sub-normal body temperature, and growth of lanugo. Although the bulimic usually maintains weight within normal ranges (at least at the beginning of the behavior), there are frequent fluctuations depending on binges, purges, diets, and fasts.

Habitually overeating, which almost always causes obesity, has many damaging results. Obesity is a known risk factor for diabetes, heart diseases, high blood pressure, gallbladder disease, arthritis, breathing problems, and some forms of cancer.³

If you practice any of the behaviors described above, it is important for you to be evaluated and cared for by a physician, even if you aren’t presently exhibiting any of these symptoms. And if you do have symptoms, please do not neglect to see a doctor—ignoring the physical problems won’t make them go away and may, in fact, make them significantly worse. All three of these behaviors can lead to severe medical problems and even death.

I think it is safe to say that most women who are entrapped by these behaviors never planned to be. I don’t believe anyone plans to be bulimic. In both anorexia and bulimia, perhaps the woman began the behavior as a method to control weight and then found herself feeling that she was unable to stop. For the woman who compulsively overeats, running to food simply became the way she handled the ups and downs she faced in life.

Although everyone is unique and our personal motives differ, I think it is safe to say that there is a dynamic of idolatry in all life-dominating sins, including gluttony. To help you understand how this dynamic functions, let’s read about Marlene, a woman practiced bulimia. I realize that if you are anorectic or a compulsive overeater, you will have to adjust this example for your situation, so after I’ve thoroughly explained Marlene’s behavior, I’ll give you more specific guidance.

A Life-Dominating Struggle

I hope you have a clear enough understanding of idolatry from your reading so far that you understand what I mean when I say bulimics have adopted “a different god.” Remember that an idol is anything usurps your love for God: anything (or anyone) for which you sin in order to obtain or because you can’t have it. If you are bulimic, you must ask yourself, What do I love, seek after, or worship more than God? I imagine this might be a difficult question for you to answer, so let’s examine Marlene’s struggle with bulimia to see what she loved, sought after, and worshiped.

Marlene was a 24-year-old married Christian mother of two when I first met her. She had practiced habits of bulimia since high school. As I got to know her, it became apparent that one of the main goals of her life was to be thinner than her sisters. She had first embraced this thought in junior high and had never really grown past it. “I must be thinner than my sisters” was so strong in her desires that it actually functioned as a god to her, even though she wasn’t always fully aware of it. Her obsession dictated the focus of her thoughts and actions. It ruled over her, demanding enslaving obedience. It was a ruthless taskmaster.

The worship of her god, “I must be thinner than my sisters,” had a number of different nuances. For instance, her identity and worth as a woman were tied up in what size she wore. Her daily experience of peace and joy was determined by whether she was “good” or “bad” in her eating. Her emotions alternated between anger and frustration because she spent her life in such futility; she felt depressed and fearful that she would never change, and she was filled with self-loathing and self-indulgence. These emotions gave rise to more despair, disgust, and bitterness, leading her to eat everything in sight. Marlene wanted to serve the Lord, and after each binge she would resolve again to live her life for Christ. But she continually found her thoughts focused on the questions, What do I look like? Am I gaining weight? Am I as good as they are? As a result, her relationships with her family were affected. Every family gathering was ruined by fear. When Marlene saw her sisters she immediately compared herself with them—had they gained weight? Was she more in control than they? Did they compliment her on her figure? Would they criticize her for being too thin or too fat? Her god perverted every joyful occasion, leeching out the pleasure of family, creating an atmosphere of competition, fear, and ambition in her own heart. Would they eat two helpings of turkey? She would have only one…did they notice?

Life-Dominating Demands

As we look at Marlene’s struggles, we learn that every god demands worship and service. Marlene’s god, “I must be thinner than my sisters,” demanded that Marlene constantly think about how she looked and how her clothing fit—no matter what she had eaten the day before. What the scale said to her about her weight determined whether she had peace or anxiety. She worshiped the thought of wearing a size 4; she spent far too much time and money on her appearance. Her treasure and her heart were tied up in her bodily image. Functionally, she believed that if she could serve her god perfectly enough she would have abundant life—she would know true peace and joy. She was utterly and tragically consumed by her god’s demands.

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