Lent and Eating Disorders: Advice for These 40 Days
‘The most intimate communion I have with God is that I eat him.’
While Lent provides an opportunity for Catholics to enrich their faith through fasting and sacrifice, the season can present particular challenges, as well as opportunities for grace, for people with a history of disordered eating.
“The Lenten season can be very tempting for individuals who struggle with eating disorders,” said board-certified psychiatrist Francie Broghammer, lead consult and liaison telepsychiatrist for Sutter Health.
“Lent is a period where suffering and sacrifice are encouraged, and certain behaviors that would not typically be considered ‘normal’ are tolerated and even encouraged,” Broghammer told the Register. “People can skip meals, avoid specific foods, or exercise more than normal, and such behaviors will go unnoticed, or even celebrated under the guise of sacrifice.”
“This allows for individuals who struggle with disordered eating to more freely engage in behaviors that may otherwise draw unwanted attention or create conflict,” she said.
It is common for Catholics to commit to “giving up” something for Lent, which often includes abstaining from some sort of food or drink. For someone struggling with an eating disorder, however, such abstinence “would be disastrous,” said Father Marcus Pollard, chaplain of Christendom College, in an interview with the Register.
“Other than the very minimal abstinence from meat on Friday, and then limiting what they eat on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, none of their penance should be related to food,” said Father Pollard, who holds a M.A. in developmental psychology from Liberty University.
The starting point for Lenten fasting should be that God, “through the Church,” calls us to self-denial, charity and prayer to help us “become a better person,” he said.
People who struggle with eating disorders often are “starting from a place of: ‘There’s something wrong with me.’”
“That’s not where God would have us start,” Father Pollard said. “God would have us start with: ‘I love you, I care about you, and I want you to become better.’”
Eating disorders are experienced by 9% of the global population, studies indicate, and affect men and women alike across demographics.
Eating disorders come in various forms and do not always manifest as a compulsion to lose weight. These disorders include anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, as well as orthorexia, the preoccupation with consuming exclusively “healthy” foods. While orthorexia is not yet listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), Broghammer explained, she said that the symptoms nonetheless “do fall under the broader category of Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID).”
For people struggling with any eating disorder during Lent, psychologist Laurie Cooper emphasized the importance of faith-based support in addition to guidance from mental-health professionals.
“Our faith leaders and supports are much more accessible than mental-health professionals and therefore one of the first and most important advocates for healing and guidance during the Lenten season,” she said.
“The self-recrimination and hopelessness that underlie the eating disorder are huge barriers in accepting and being comforted by God’s love,” she explained, adding that people who struggle often believe that the truths of “grace, faith and worthiness” don’t apply to them.
“Faith-based supports can provide assurances that these gifts are for everyone — no matter how broken or unworthy they might feel,” Cooper said.
Cooper told the Register that Lent must be approached with care for those who struggle with disordered eating, as “the practice of well-intended fasting (food restriction, limited choices, rules about when you can eat food, etc.) closely resembles the rules and rigidity that drive an eating disorder.”
“An eating disorder is an opportunistic illness,” added Cooper, who as a doctorate in psychology and serves as regional assistant vice president of operations of The Renfrew Center, which specializes in caring for people who experience disordered eating around the country.
Healed by the Eucharist
Register contributor Emily Stimpson Chapman is a testament to the depth of healing that can come from faith.
The author of the book The Catholic Table: Finding Joy Where Food and Faith Meet, who frequently shares her love of food and entertaining on social media, has been open about her own history with disordered eating.
After a boy she liked commented on her weight gain during freshman year of college, the then-19-year-old Emily committed herself to losing 10 pounds. Then another 10 pounds. Then another. By age 21, she had lost 50 pounds and was at a dangerously unhealthy weight.
“What I eventually came to see is that not eating was a slow form of suicide,” Chapman told the Register. “I didn’t think I was good enough. I didn’t think I could ever be good enough.”
“I was slowly erasing myself,” she said.
The commitment to lose weight had become “so much more than a diet,” Chapman explained. “It was me working out issues about what it meant to be a woman.”
“I knew I could never hide my intelligence or my opinions,” she said. “I thought: Maybe if I were really tiny, people would think I was feminine. I had it in my head that intelligent women weren’t feminine.”
“The world was very confusing, and I was faced with a number of different personal circumstances that were hard for me. Not eating became a way to control a very confusing world. I couldn’t control the world, but I could control what went into my body.”
Chapman’s six-year struggle with disordered eating had coincided with her being away from the Catholic Church. Soon after coming back to the Church, she was returning to her pew after receiving the Eucharist when all of her studies about the faith, prayers before the Blessed Sacrament, and “all the growing and understanding of a sacramental worldview” came together in a single sentence: “The most intimate communion I have with God is that I eat him.”
“That turned my world upside down so quickly,” she said. “The very thing I had been so afraid of, and so desperate to control, food, was actually how God gave himself to me. I realized I had to rethink everything I thought I knew about food and the body at that point.”
Finding Hope in the Penitential Season
Broghammer advises that approaching Lent with an eating disorder involves reflecting on the purpose of the season and one’s own motivation behind a given penance.
“Lent is a time to share in Jesus' suffering and grow closer to God,” Broghammer said.
“While it can be very tempting to engage in more traditional Lenten sacrifices such as fasting, it is important to ask yourself if you are choosing these sacrifices to feel better personally or to grow in holiness.”
“For individuals with disordered eating, engaging in treatment and working to resist urges to restrict or purge may be the action that requires far more sacrifice and actually allows you to better live in the spirit of Lent,” she said.
After her return to the Church, Chapman found that her history with disordered eating did not present particular challenges during Lent, although she does recall one year of being overzealous in the number of sacrifices she made.
That experience taught her that “Lent isn’t about giving up all of the things. It’s about growing closer to Christ.”
“I didn’t consult Jesus,” she said of that particular Lent past. “I didn’t try to fast with his grace and his help. I was just Emily, trying to power through fasting like I had powered through not eating for all of those years.”
“God helped me to see that I needed to go really easy when it came to fasting and food. I needed to take a more gentle route,” she said.
“I would never, ever recommend someone who is struggling with eating, or in the process of healing from an eating disorder, do any kind of intense fasting beyond what the Church asks us to do,” Chapman said.
It may be possible for someone with a history of disordered eating to engage in fasting down the line, she said, but cautioned that “it’s so easy to slip back into old behaviors and old coping mechanisms.”
“I’m able to fast now, as the Church asks, and give things up,” she said. “It’s not massively triggering for me, but I also know not to go completely crazy overboard. I’m a lot gentler with myself during Lent than I would have been 20 years ago.”
Emulating the Penance of the Saints
Catholics are encouraged to follow the example of the saints, who often engaged in extreme fasting and penances, in their pursuit of holiness. But prudence is necessary, as even the saints relate.
Father Pollard likes to cite the example from one biography of St. John Vianney, who would sustain himself on a few bites of boiled potatoes, even after they had turned moldy. But after he experienced digestive problems later in life, the saint said, as Father Pollard paraphrased: “I ruined my health when I was younger. It was zeal, and it was stupid. And because I was so zealous then and not reasonable, I’m not as effective a priest today as I could’ve been.”
For someone with a history of disordered eating, Broghammer underscored that they truly assess their intentions for Lenten penance.
“If someone is fasting with the goal of losing weight, feeling better about themselves, or proving that they have ‘control’ over their body, then they are engaging in fasting for personal reasons not spiritual ones,” Broghammer said.
On the other hand, “if fasting, instead, is an action not typically preferred by an individual, and the only personal gain that they receive is growing in holiness, then fasting may be a more appropriate Lenten sacrifice.”
“A good way to gauge intention is to ask yourself, ‘Will I be distressed if I am not able to fast?’ Individuals with disordered eating are more likely to answer ‘Yes’ to this question, whereas those who do not have disordered eating are more likely to respond, “Not a big deal. I will just find another way to sacrifice and grow closer to God.’”
Chapman added that it can be a form of pride to attempt great spiritual feats, like extreme fasting, without the guidance of a spiritual director.
“Most saints had spiritual directors,” she said. “You should not be taking on any kind of extreme penance or extreme fast without a spiritual director who is helping you and watching you and aware of where you are spiritually.”
Recalling that most of us are not spiritually in the same place as the likes of St. Catherine of Siena, or St. Teresa of Avila, or St. John of the Cross, she added: “It’s like trying to run a marathon when you’ve never run a mile, with no training, thinking that you don’t need any help along the way. It’s really spiritual hubris to try to take on what somebody who is at the peak of their spiritual life has done when you’re not there.”
As for advice to someone who is approaching Lent with a history of disordered eating, “I would advise them to look where they are going for help that is not Christ,” Chapman said. “When they are stressed, when they are anxious, when they are feeling out of control, what do they do?”
Whether it’s drinking, shopping, going online, etc., she explained, “Where are they going to rely on help that is not Jesus? Think about giving up that thing.”
Chapman emphasized the importance of prayer in discernment, adding that “most of us forget to pray about what our Lenten penance is supposed to be.”
Although Chapman has come a long way in her healing from disordered eating, she advises that anyone who approaches Lent with an eating disorder seek the guidance of a counselor and a spiritual director. “This is not the type of decision you just make on your own because Emily Chapman said something in a newspaper article!
“It’s really a question for individual discernment, with the help of people who know you well and who are walking with you in your recovery.”