There is a long history between religion and eating. In the sixth century B.C.E., Eastern religions used fasting to release the soul from the material world. In later centuries, "holy fasting" occurred when many women fasted for spiritual self-redemption, purification of the soul, or to participate in the suffering of Christ (Bynum, 1987). Even today, contemporary eating problems are also sometimes framed in religious and spiritual language and imagery (Lelwica, 1999). There is reason to believe that in some cases, religion has a positive role in one's body image and eating behavior, whereas in other instances it has a negative role. Studies of diagnosed patients in clinics have found that women with eating disorders often suffer from overall feelings of spiritual unworthiness and have negative God images and fear of abandonment by God. In one case, a woman invoked religious symbols of light and dark to describe her abnormal eating. Eating was impure and defiling to her and thus consistent with a Satanic meaning of night's darkness, so she ate only at night. In such cases, women used religious language and symbols to justify disordered eating and endow it with some grander meaning (Banks, 1996). Two-thirds of a sample of young patients with eating disorders received Communion less often in order to consume fewer calories. Together, these cases show that links between religion and eating can be complex. In some cases, women use religion to motivate and perpetuate their disordered eating, whereas in others women have used their disorder to restrict their involvement in religious practices.
Treatment studies also reveal complex links between religion and eating behavior. One study found that inpatient women who improved in spiritual well-being during treatment also improved in body image and eating attitudes. Some African-American churches have used successful weight-loss programs based on the structure and spiritual themes of Alcoholics Anonymous, and Orthodox Jewish teenagers with eating disorders often involved rabbinic authorities in their treatment. Thus, eating disorders can be related to religious issues and may be treated within those social contexts and worldviews. Indeed, various religious denominations have employed spiritual dimensions in treating disordered eating.
Research has examined different religious groups. In one mixed-age sample of clinic patients, higher proportions of Roman Catholics and Jews and lower proportions of Protestants had eating disorders relative to the general population. In one study of adolescents in England, disordered eating was more common in Muslim than Hindu youth. Poor body image and eating are often due to pathological family relations. In one study of American college women, intrinsic religiosity was a buffer against unhealthy family influence. That is, the more the women integrated their faith into their lives, the less their body image was harmed by pathological dynamics in the family. Recent studies have found that for teenage girls with a history of being sexually abused, higher religiosity was a protective factor against the later development of eating disorders. Collectively, these studies suggest that religion and spirituality are linked to improvement or protection from disordered eating.