Recently, I read one of those “Research Shows” articles online which claim that eating disorders have mysterious, undetermined, biochemical causes. The piece was rife with misinformation and unsubstantiated claims, including the following:
“…Unlike a neurological disorder, which generally can be pinpointed to a specific lesion on the brain, an eating disorder likely involves abnormal activity distributed across brain systems. With increased recognition that mental disorders are brain disorders, more researchers are using tools from both modern neuroscience and modern psychology to better understand eating disorders. “
As a point of fact, the conjecture that eating disorders are caused by chemical imbalances or abnormal cerebral activity is quite easy to refute. I will only touch on the lack of evidence for these claims, and then turn to the actual underlying problem.
1.) There is NO biochemical evidence, in 2 decades of research, that has ever indicated eating disorders are caused by chemical imbalances, genetic mutations, pathogens, or any other neurological abnormality;
2.) Neither SSSI nor psychotropic drugs (different forms of antidepressants) have ever been shown to have any effect on eating disorders whatsoever;
3.) Anti-depressants don’t even help depressed people, eating disordered or not. A 2000 study in the American Journal of Psychiatry following Prozac and Selexor showed that of psychiatric patients who were prescribed medication, 24% responded well to herbal remedy St. John’s Wort; 25% to Zoloft, and 30% to a placebo. Thus, a sugar pill was shown to be more helpful than the drugs.
The question of “chemical imbalance” is a bit of a chicken-and-egg scenario. Since it is understood that addictions feed endorphins, the “pleasure center” of the brain, it is possible that the addictive effect of the binge, developed into a habit, has altered the brain chemistry. When re-learning to eat, the bulimic has to fight very real cravings and essentially “re-wire” her brain. In no way, however, does this indicate that the bulimic behavior was caused by chemical abnormalities. Rather, as in a drug addict’s case, it points to a chemical dependency that has been caused by the behavior (and not the other way around).
Furthermore, if psychiatrists are so certain that eating disorders are ‘diseases’, why is diagnosis made purely based on symptoms? What diagnostic tests are used to determine the brain activity that is supposedly so abnormal? Cat Scan? MRI? Blood test? Biopsy? Tissue samples? No. Absolutely nothing. If these eating disorders are just “illnesses”, why do the people who carry them feel guilty about their behavior? Would they feel guilty if they had chicken pox, or cancer? Or could it be, just perhaps, that they know, deep down inside, that they are doing something wrong, even if they are not quite sure of the reasons for their compulsion?
Knowing that I am a biblical counselor and have written a book on the biblical answer to food addiction, the administrator of the forum where this particular article was posted asked me to write an article on God’s view of eating disorders. Let me say from the outset that God’s view of eating disorders is the same as His view of all other addictions: He calls it sin. Sin is action, words, or thoughts that go against God’s will and character. An addiction is a life-dominating sin.
Re-labeling ‘sin’ as ‘disease’ or ‘illness’ is an attempt to remove personal responsibility for the behavior. Harold Hughes, the Iowa congressman who championed health coverage for alcoholism treatment, admitted that the aggressive campaign to get alcoholism labeled as ‘disease’ by the American Psychiatric Association was nothing more than an attempt to get health insurance companies to pay for the treatment and thus keep foundering hospitals afloat. (It worked, by the way. More than half of health insurance expenses now go to ‘mental health’ care.) Those who see their bondage to drugs, alcohol or food as a ‘disease’ fatalistically tend to believe that they are “never recovered; always in recovery”. By contrast, if we realize that this behavior is rebellion against God, in Whose image we are made, and call it what it is – sin – we may have great hope! We already know what the answer is – repentance.
Anorexia and bulimia are spiritual diseases masquerading as physical ones. In fact, for this reason, I believe the term “recovery” is slightly inaccurate and therefore I try to avoid using it. Recover has a connotation of the convalescence and passive improvement typical of physical diseases. What I hope to teach you is how to repent, so that God will restore you. Since the Bible speaks of overcoming sin, we may also use that term here. To all who are in Him, Christ promises victory, and that is our ultimate goal.
Addictions are, in fact, learned behaviors, which can be unlearned. Hopefully, we all agree that self-destructive behavior is sin. I have seen 1 Corinthians 6:19, “do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit” taken out of context and used to argue against everything from piercings to eating chips, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to apply it to eating disorders. The Bible always mentions “gluttony” in a negative light (see Deuteronomy 21:20; Proverbs 23:21; Matthew 11:19; Titus 1:12). In 1 Corinthians 6:20, Paul goes on to say, “Therefore honor God with your bodies”. Later in the same letter he says, “But whatever you do, whether you eat or drink, do it all to the glory of God.” (1 Corinthians 10:31). Does bulimic behavior honor or glorify God? Does it manifest self-control?
Ask yourself honestly: do I consider my behavior (binging, purging, starving or eating to excess) sinful? If so, are you really okay with continuing on in it? Biblical counselor and author Martha Peace puts the issue succinctly: “Bulimia is wrong for two reasons: First, it can cause serious medical problems such as damage to your esophagus and your teeth. Second, it is a sin because overeating is gluttony, throwing up is a lack of self-control, and wanting to be thin so badly that you are willing to sin is idolatry.”
In 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 Paul gives us a laundry list of what types of people, who, if they continue on in their sinful lifestyle of choice, will not inherit the Kingdom of God. He completes his litany of life-dominating sins by reminding the Corinthians, “And such were some of you.” He is talking about the Christians who, before believing on Christ and turning from their sinful way of life, were controlled by things like alcohol, greed, and homosexuality. “Were” is past tense. They left this lifestyle behind. If God commands us to repent, and Scripture tells us that if we are in Christ sin no longer has the power to control us, then it must be possible to “put off” an addiction and “put on” freedom. God does not demand something from us we are incapable of giving, and perfect holiness has already been achieved by His children by Christ’s death on the Cross. We are therefore exhorted in Philippians 3:16 to “live up to what we have already attained”. This includes repenting of the idolatrous sins of anorexia and bulimia.