We’ve been talking about the many factors that can influence and create risk for eating disorders and disordered eating. There are religious considerations that do impact these issues. That said, religion cannot be viewed as an entirely positive or negative construct regarding eating disorder risk. This is partly because there are psychological variables as well as religious engagement considerations to consider. Studies have determined eating disorder risk is both staved off by and preserved through religious factors and considerations. Religious behaviors and beliefs have been found to lead to both positive and negative coping strategies and eating disorder outcomes. How can this be and what does this mean on a practical level? Well, while religiosity does influence eating pathology, body satisfaction, as well as image disturbances and issues, the result and outcome of that influence is not always the same.
In fact, in the scientific research on how Jewish orthodox religion affects disordered eating and eating disorders, there are conflicting conclusions. There are those studies that find strong religiosity, greater levels of spirituality, and connection to G-d to be both a protective and positive influence vis a vis eating disorders. On the other hand, however, there are also studies which find that positive religious feelings and religious coping do not reflect lower levels of eating disorders and that sometimes, a person’s attachment to G-d as well as their spiritual beliefs and practices actually grow stronger through their eating disorder experience. Ultimately, though, studies have established that religion itself is less a factor, but how an individual internalizes their religion that can be. Those with a more personal and real connection to G-d are found to have better coping skills and less overall risk, compared with those who experience a more extrinsic or socially focused motivation regarding their religious practice and observance. Those were found to be at higher eating disorder risk overall.
Religious eating disorder risk is complicated and complex, especially during adolescence as that is a time of self-discovery, transition, and transformation, which can be especially trying for someone’s spiritual growth and development. More often than not, adolescents are simply not yet ready to forge their own deep and lasting connection to G-d, especially since adolescence is also a time when teens challenge and question everything. While this is simply part of their maturity and growth process, this can make religion with its strict rules and regulations, seem overwhelming and intense. Although this is just a quick and oversimplified overview of how religion affects risk, it nevertheless, demonstrates how multi-layered and delicate eating disorder onset can be.