Recently Gallup reported that 80% of American adults over age 25 are overweight and most of them are trying unsuccessfully to lose weight. Ladies Home Journal found that 71% of the women they surveyed think about their weight at least once per day and 40% have failed at a diet in the past year. And more and more young people and adults are suffering with anorexia or bulimia.
Eating for emotional reasons is the problem. It’s called food addiction.
Food and Feelings
Feelings. Everyone I’ve talked to who has a food addiction – overeater, anorexic, or bulimic – uses food as a mechanism for coping with unwanted feelings that are overwhelming and dominating them. (There are significant differences between these types of food addiction that won’t be addressed in this article which mostly considers overeating.) Here are some examples of things overeaters have said to me:
- “Food is always there for me. It’s like the friend I can count on when I’m lonely.”
- “I don’t want to feel empty and eating helps me to feel full.”
- “My mom doesn’t like me being independent, but then when I go to her for help she criticizes me. I hate that! Then I binge and purge.”
- “I feel strong and confident when I don’t eat.”
- “I get so tired caring for my kids and going from thing to thing. So I have another Coke or a candy bar to get through the next hour.”
- “I overeat at night while I’m watching TV or on Facebook. I work hard all day and I guess this is what I do for myself.”
- “If I keep eating then I can stop the pain.”
- “I need to be thin to feel confident with people.”
- “If I don’t eat then it’s like I don’t have needs.” “If I’m heavy then men don’t look at me. I feel safer and strong when I’m BIG.”
People struggling with food addiction use food as a defense mechanism seems to work at first. Sugar, caffeine, and chocolate do give you a brief energy boost. “Feel good foods” may bring momentary pleasure. Crunchy foods may seem to release some anger or tension. The numbing effects of bingeing or purging or starving can temporarily distract you from unwanted feelings.
You eat (or purge or starve) when you want to and without the risk of trusting another person who might hurt you so you feel in control of getting the energy, pleasure, release, or numbing you want – until you realize that actually your compulsive behavior is controlling you, you’re not controlling it, and your pain and problems haven’t gone away.
Using food to feel better ultimately makes you feel worse. Denied feelings and needs don’t go away they just become unconscious. Hurts still cry out for comfort. Needs still yearn to be met. Sins must be confessed to be cleanses. And problems still need to be resolved.
Do You Have an Eating Disorder?
Maybe you identify with some of the things that the people who have a food addiction said. Maybe you use food to deal with pain, loneliness, boredom, or conflict. Take our Eating Disorders Test to see if you might be struggling with an eating disorder that needs therapeutic intervention.
How do you feel about your body? What thoughts do you have about your body?
The Bible teaches us that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14) and that our bodies are temples for the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19). But many people do not like what they see when they look in the mirror. They have a negative body image, often due to distorted perceptions. Your body image is your experience of your body; the mental picture you have of your body and the associated feelings, thoughts, judgments, and behaviors.
People Magazine (September 4th, 2000 issue, “How do I Look?”) did a body image survey of 1,000 women, aged 18-55. Only 10% said they were completely satisfied with their bodies. And 80% said images of women on TV and in the movies made them feel insecure. How insecure? So insecure that 93% have tried to lose weight, 34% have had or would have cosmetic surgery, and 34% said they would be willing to try a diet “even if it posed at least a slight health risk”!
Women especially long to be appreciated as beautiful – that’s the way God made them, it’s part of the way that they bear the image of God. The Bible teaches us that a woman’s God-blessed attractiveness is an inner beauty and graciousness that radiates outward and lasts forever (1 Peter 3:4).
But we get a very different focus in the media! Did you know that the average model is 5 feet and 9 inches tall, weighs just 110 pounds, and wears a size 2 or 4? Compare that to the average woman in America who is 5 feet and 4 inches tall, weighs 140 pounds, and wears a size 12 or 14! Unfortunately, a lot of women are making that comparison and feeling insecure and unattractive!
Jacquiline aged 17 said, “I try to like myself for what I am but I open a magazine and immediately compare myself with those perfect models.” What girls like Jacquiline see in the pictures of Hollywood stars and supermodels often is not even real! The pictures are modified, airbrushed, and in some cases created on computer from many bodies and faces! And even when the pictures are real the “Beauty Queens” themselves usually aren’t satisfied with how they look and are comparing themselves to others!
An anorexic woman I helped was going to a Juice Stop for lunch when a man said to her, “Is that all you’re going to eat for lunch?” Already, self-conscious about her appearance and diet she was very embarrassed and rushed out to her car to hide. And she was angry, tired of feeling that she was being viewed as a sex object by men.
Ending the Viscous Cycle of Food Addiction
There are many aspects that may go into the development of an eating disorder. We already referenced the influence of the media and negative body images. Other factors include diet, sedentariness, and a culture that is spiritually empty and promotes living for personal gratification now. Medical issues, like hormonal imbalances, can be very significant. This article focuses on the psychology and spirituality that’s behind many food addictions.
There’s a viscous cycle behind overeating and food addiction. It goes from:
Love Hunger -> Sin & Pain -> Unhealthy Thinking about Food -> Negative Consequences -> Love Hunger -> etc.
Hungry for Love
Ecclesiastes 3:11 says: “God has set eternity in the hearts of men.” In other words, we all have a God-shaped void. We live our lives longing for something more, which motivates us to seek God. (See Psalm 63.)
Especially when we’re seeking to recover from an addiction or emotional disorder, we’re dependent upon experiencing God’s love through “Christ’s Ambassadors,” people who mediate Christ to us through their care. For instance, parents loving their children, teachers mentoring students, pastors praying for church attenders, counselors caring for clients, and sponsors guiding those in recovery.
It’s in the Body of Christ that we first learn to trust, get our needs met, develop our identity, and be a blessing to others. Relationships with Christ’s Ambassadors help us to develop the ability to “walk by faith and not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7) so that more and more we can relate with God directly and prayerfully through his Word and his Spirit.
Sin and Pain
Like most Psychologists and our culture today, in the past I’ve been guilty of putting too much emphasis on our psychological problems being due to unhealthy reactions to the sins of others against us or stress. For instance, the background of those struggling with food addiction includes painful issues to overcome like:
1. Rejection, abandonment, or neglect
2 Abuse, criticism, or harshness
3. Inheritance: physically, psychologically, and spiritually
4. Love was expressed through food in childhood
But our own sins are as much or more a part of our problems, including with overeating and other eating disorders. This includes things like:
1. Resentment or unforgiveness (for the above)
2. Pride, mistrust, self-sufficiency (not wanting to be vulnerable or reach out)
3. Sensuality, self-gratification, compulsion
4. Deceit, denial of our sins and others sins against us
Unhealthy Thinking about Food
The psychology and spirituality behind overeating is that we’re turning to food for help instead of to God and his provision. The Bible says, “My God shall meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:19).
But maybe we don’t really believe in our hearts that God meets our needs. So we look to food to meet our needs and it becomes more and more important to us until it becomes compulsive. In that sense it becomes an idol, a false god. We can do the same thing with alcohol, drugs, sex, work, co-dependent relationships, shopping, even religion.
The Bible teaches us to do everything that we do for God’s glory and specifically mentions eating for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:13). Jesus is to be Lord of – to rule over or govern – what, where, when, and why we eat. He is a kind, gracious, and powerful king so to seek first his kingdom rule in our eating and our whole lives ends up being the very best thing we can do for ourselves not only for eternity, but for right now too (Matthew 6:33).
But a lot of us are really messed up in how we think about food and eating! Here are some examples of unhealthy and unholy thinking that relates to overeating and food addiction:
1. All-or-none. One cookie becomes a half dozen or a dozen! “I blew it so I might as well just give in. Tomorrow I’ll get back to my plan.” No. Better to stop at the third cookie. Catching yourself after a “little slip” is much less damaging than waiting till after you’ve fallen flat on your face.
2. Perfectionism. This is really a variation on all-or-none thinking. We think that we have to look ideal and we compare ourselves to anorexic models and beautiful movie stars. We think that we need to look super attractive to be attractive as a person, to perform well to be accepted. We need to learn to live in grace.
3. Shame. We accept the idea that if we’re overweight we’re ugly, if we’re not performing well we’re bad. If our self-concept is shame-based then we’ll live that out in our behavior. Self-condemnation is deadly because it undermines the acceptance and care that God and others offer us. Even when we mess up or sin God doesn’t want us to feel ashamed – “There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ” (Romans 8:1) – he wants us to feel sad that we hurt ourselves, others, and God and to seek his forgiveness and love (2 Corinthians 7:9-13).
4. Excuses. “I’m under a lot of stress no so I can’t deal with my overeating.” But overeating causes more stress! Not dealing with things just makes it worse. It’s the mindset of not being disciplined – not being responsible, not persevering with what is good and healthy – that is the problem.
Many people, even those who are not dealing food addiction, actually think that overeating helps them! There are many examples of this:
- “Feel good foods” like sugars, fats, and snacks taste good; they may be used for comfort. The Bible says, “If you find honey, eat just enough — too much of it, and you will vomit” (Proverbs 25:16). Sugar is a drug and it makes terrible demands on your body. It disrupts your calcium-phosphorus balance and robs your body of necessary B vitamins. Too much sugar can cause nervousness, skin troubles, digestive problems, diabetes or its counterpart, hypoglycemia.
- “Energy foods” like caffeine, sugar, and chocolate may be used for confidence. An overeater I helped relied on Coke’s or candy for confidence going into her business meetings until she learned to talk herself through her fears and rely on God’s affirmation of her. Too much caffeine can actually create symptoms of an anxiety disorder. This is a bigger problem than most people realize in our sleep deprived and coffee addicted society!
- Crunchy foods like chips may express tension, frustration, and anger. I helped a bulimic woman who used to binge on bags of chips and other crunchy snacks then purge it with laxatives see that she was angry to deal with this directly and in relationship rather than going to crunchy foods.
- Often people who are overwhelmed with painful feelings, like those who have been abused, may use food to detach from or “numb out” painful feelings.
Sharon was extremely over-weight and called herself lazy, unmotivated and many worse names as she kept “trying” to lose. It took her months before she could even stop calling herself these names and begin to “digest” care from others.
Eventually she learned to think about how she actually felt when overeating. She found that what she liked about it was that if she ate enough she would eventually feel numb. So the question became: “What are you numbing out?” In her case, the answer was sadness and intense anger at men.
Why was she so sad and angry at men? Sharon confessed that as a teenager she had been sexually abused by her step-father and some of his drinking buddies. Sharon liked being overweight because she thought this might keep her safe from being an object of violence at the hands of frightening men.
Dealing with the psychology behind her overeating helped Sharon to lose weight and to learn to trust men. (This is a summary of a testimony from HealthyPlace.com)
- Extra weight can be a way to hide. Being bigger may feel like being more powerful. For instance, a woman I helped was violated sexually by her father was afraid to look sexual or attractive so she hid her body behind a wall of fat.
- Food meets hunger and fills a physical empty place that may feel as if it satisfies an emotional need.
- We may use food to help us socialize, to treat or reward ourselves, or to stimulate ourselves when we’re bored.
This is crazy thinking! It’s stinking thinking! We need to watch our for Negativity! Each of these excuses are ineffective coping strategies. Food doesn’t do any of these things for us. It meets physical, bodily needs only and as such it is temporary. This is why we won’t need to eat in heaven.
Food addiction does not solve any problems for us — they just make our problems worse! Overeating causes weight gain, health problems, fatigue, decreased mobility, susceptibility to back injury and other injuries, mood swings, more shame. All of this, especially the embarrassment, guilt, and worthlessness reinforces the problem of overeating. Someone who is obese may feel that he or she should be or deserves to be overweight and so just gives into it and perpetuates it until it becomes a compulsive pattern.
Along with denied needs, unconfessed sin, or repressed trauma, the negative consequences of an eating disorder like weight gain or extreme thinness can lead to terrible guilt and shame. And the self-criticism keeps the food addict stuck with their inner emptiness and pain and so he/she goes back to food to cope, perpetuating the viscous cycle.
Even when food addicts encounter someone who cares and offers beneficial help they often struggle to receive and make use of this help. Instead they may spoil it with self-condemning and self-negating messages from their internal critic, which says to themselves things like:
- “You’re too needy. Don’t be a burden to her.”
- “Don’t be so sensitive! You shouldn’t feel that way.”
- “He doesn’t really mean those nice things he’s saying about you. No one really feels good about you.”
- “Grow up. You need to handle this yourself.”
I Stopped Relying on Food as a Reward
Recently I was about to start giving a seminar on recovery from eating disorders and an overeater in the audience quipped, “You look so fit. How can you understand and help someone like me?” True, I have never had an eating disorder, though I have had to overcome other problems like an anxiety disorder and compulsive overworking. And I’ve spent hundreds of hours listening to and caring for people with eating disorders.
In any case, I do know what it’s like to rely on eating for good feelings. In my family growing up food was an important way of showing love. Many people I’ve talked to have had this confused. In my case it goes back to my Italian Grandmother who loved to cook and showed her love for us with treats and wonderful meals. I got a bag of assorted homemade cookies whenever I visited her. And her dinner table was always a smorgasbord of food dishes, especially at Thanksgiving, and she was disappointed if I left the table without having second and third helpings. After dinner at her house I always ended up lying down on what I called “the tummy hurt couch.”
My parents, without realizing it, also used this association of food and love by offering me a dessert platter of ice cream, cookies, and pastries at celebrations and to reward my achievements. And since there were seven us in our home who were hungry for love we each gobbled up the goodies as fast as we could before somebody else ate them. Up until young adulthood it was nothing for me to eat two or even three heaping bowls of ice cream and a dozen cookies in one evening. (It’s no wonder I developed an intolerance for lactose and chocolate!) Then the next morning I’d run a few extra miles on my jog to work it off.
When I got older I worked to undo my association between food and care. I started to set limits on my eating and to get care from people and enjoyment from experiences. For me, eating healthy and exercising regularly have become very important ways to honor God with my body.
Food for Hungry Souls
In John 4 we read that Jesus helped a Samaritan woman with a compulsive sexual behavior problem. This passage speaks to food addictions as well. Jesus showed this woman that she could receive living water from him, promising that his care would satisfy the thirst of her soul in a way that food, sex, or anything else could not.
“Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:13-14)
At another time Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.” (John 6:35)
While Jesus was ministering privately to this Samaritan woman his disciples were getting food. (This was a powerful statement of her worth, as in that day men of distinction didn’t show such regard for women, especially an adulterous woman, and Jews didn’t associate with Samaritans.) When they came back they couldn’t understand why Jesus didn’t stop talking to the woman and eat with them.
“But he said to them, ‘I have food to eat that you know nothing about.’ ‘My food,’ said Jesus, ‘is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work.’” (John 4: 32, 34).
Jesus modeled eating to live (looking to enjoy God and serve Him) rather than living to eat (relying on food to feel good). He shows us that when we are connected to God’s love and have his passion about our work and ministry – a sense of God’s calling – it actually is food to our souls.
Through prayer, worship, enjoying nature, meditating on God’s Word, serving God with our gifts, and relating with others in the Body of Christ we sit at God’s banquet table prepared with the “fruit of the Spirit,” – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control – to fill our hungry souls and to share with others in need (Galatians 5:22-23). We draw energy and purpose from God’s Word to us (Matthew 4:4).
Soul Care Essentials
If you’re dealing with food addiction you need help to learn to resist using food as a coping mechanism for dealing with issues and instead to turn to God to meet your needs. The help comes through relationships with people who can comfort, encourage, counsel, pray for, or mentor you. And it comes through participating in psychotherapy or a 12 Step Recovery groups like Overeaters Anonymous.
A few things you need to learn are how to:
1. Separate physical and emotional hungers by asking yourself what you’re feeling before you eat
2. “Talk out” your painful feelings so you don’t “act out” them with impulsive eating
3. Learn to “digest” (take in or agree with) the care others offer you Learn to “process” by thinking about your feelings (e.g., lonely, stressed, overwhelmed, bored angry) and what you want to do about them before you say or do anything.
4. Renew your mind in God’s Word. Read “Feeding on the Fruit of the Spirit (Instead of Overeating!)” or “Food and Fitness.”
5. Practice Fasting from food for a safe period of time. (This is not appropriate for anorexics or bulimics or anyone who for medical reasons should not fast.) While some people fast to lose weight or for overall health that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m suggesting fasting as a spiritual discipline to help you practice self-denial, to teach you and your body that you can go without food and the comfort and pleasure it provides and still be happy because you’re focusing on God’s loving presence via his Spirit and Word, which gives you life and sustains you more than food (Matthew 4:4).
When you fast it’s good to set aside meal times to pray (and meditate on Scripture) on this issue. And whenever you feel hungry treat your hunger pangs as being like the chimes on a bell tower that call you to pray. Over time you’ll find that this discipline is a powerful way to rely on God to care for your soul and set you free to be who he’s created you to be.