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What Role Does Spirituality Play in Eating Disorder Recovery?

Recovering from an eating disorder is complex and multifaceted; in addition to treating the physical manifestations such as malnutrition, bone disease, tooth decay, and low blood pressure, there are also psychological and psychiatric issues at stake. Added into the mix is the recovering individual’s sense of self and connection to their wellbeing.

The last bit may be the hardest part of eating disorder recovery.

One of the complicating factors of recovery from any kind of mental health disorder, from substance abuse to anxiety to treatment for an eating disorder like bulimia nervosa or anorexia nervosa, is designing a comprehensive plan which involves medical health, emotional wellbeing, and spirituality as part of a unified method of treatment.

Because the medical, therapeutic, and psychiatric aspects of recovery have the benefit of established, evidence-based and scientific methodologies honed over decades, there is a road map for treatment that can be to some degree used for a variety of individuals. On the other hand, spirituality is a personal journey for every individual.

Spiritual Emptiness – How It Can Trigger Eating Disorders

With a baseline of proper medical and psychological treatment ensuring the individual’s safety and the beginnings of recovery, eating disorder treatment centers can go beyond simply treating the symptoms presented by the eating disorder, and instead concentrate on their entire wellbeing.

Therapists and psychologists working with eating disorder clients have noticed a common factor in eating disorders’ development – a feeling of spiritual emptiness. This is filled with obsession over body size and shape, as well as compulsive behaviors such as binging and purging. There are comparisons to be drawn between religious obsessions such as atonement and a person with anorexia nervosa’s overwhelming desire to achieve “perfect” thinness or weight loss.

People of every race and culture need to understand their place in the world. If that understanding is missing, they may turn to religion or another spiritual group.  However, a spiritual search for meaning can focus on anything that fills the hole they feel spiritually, even if that means transferring those feelings to an unhealthy obsession.

This is often compounded by the ways we are mediated – the constant barrage of images and videos of thin, beautiful models on TV and Instagram can influence people who are feeling spiritually empty and provide them a “goal.”

Well-being experts in the eating disorder treatment field generally agree that the disordered behaviors imposed upon themselves are often a result of people’s desire to reach these unattainable beauty standards. Essentially, the part of each of us that needs a sense of spiritual connectedness can be corrupted by distorted weight and body goals.

Eating Disorders Disrupt Spirituality

One of the most common things people with eating disorders discuss is the sense that they’ve lost control of their eating habits. In many ways, this loss of control produces a sense of being disconnected from a person’s true self. As an example, people with binge eating disorder feel helpless to stop their binge eating episodes, even though they may eat so much they feel pain, and also experience feelings of guilt about the episode. When a person is compelled to do something that they don’t want to, it’s a sign they have become disconnected from their spiritual selves.

Eating disorder treatment is a combination of several different aspects. Medical, nutritional, and movement programs are designed to address the physical consequences of disordered eating. Therapy and clinical practices like CBT are designed to address the mind. And spirituality is needed to heal the spirit. If one aspect of a comprehensive care program is ignored, the healing process can’t be completed.

Most people in treatment feel disheartened; their eating behaviors have pushed them away from the things that make them happy and spiritually attuned. Whether a connection with God or a reconnection with their place in the universe in a secular setting makes the difference, spirituality plays a major role in a recovered person’s continued triumph over their eating disorder.

Spirituality Is Both Personal and Universal

Eating disorder treatment centers that include spiritual wellbeing as part of their curriculum do not normally associate themselves with any one organized religion. Although religious, faith-based healing programs have had some success, most modern quality eating disorder recovery programs allow for a wide variety of personal understandings that meet clients’ spiritual needs. Of course, individuals in treatment who have religious faith are encouraged to maintain that faith as a part of their spiritual recovery,

Spirituality is a personal journey that everyone takes part in, in which you discover your connection to yourself and what your place in the world is. Because it’s a universal journey that is yet also deeply personal, it has to be part of a comprehensive eating disorder recovery.

As a metaphor – if someone was being treated for high blood pressure, would the doctor simply prescribe a pill and call it a day? Or would he also recommend a combination of exercise and sodium reduction to treat the overall causes of the disease?

Since a spiritual emptiness can lead to disordered behaviors and is often a complicating factor in their treatment, any quality eating disorder treatment center will incorporate spiritual awareness as a central part of the treatment process.

Faith and Spirituality in Eating Disorder Treatment

Spirituality comes in varied forms. It can be quite different from one person to the next. As we mentioned, most modern eating disorder treatment centers use an evidence-based methodology as the core of their program. This may cause some hesitation about entering treatment for people who are deeply faithful in a religious sense but being evidence-based does not mean that religious points of view are ignored. Programs that emphasize the personal journey toward a full spiritual life encourage people to find their path, and religion can be a large part of that.

In fact, many programs make special efforts to accommodate religious food restrictions and worship. For example, if a client follows Jewish kosher eating rules, they can mention this to the treatment center before admitting and receive specially prepared kosher meals and snacks. The same can be said for halal foods, vegetarian foods, and in many cases vegan foods. Balancing a weight restoration or nutrition restoration meal plan with religious food restrictions can be a difficult balancing act, but since spirituality is a focus, most treatment centers will strive to make it happen.

As long as the client’s ability to embrace their spirituality is promoted, their chances for recovery improve. Combined with a clinical approach to therapy and a scientific approach to nutrition, any approach to spirituality can lead to a full recovery.

Mindfulness and Spirituality

Mindfulness is central to all aspects of eating disorder recovery. The practice of living in the moment, being entirely present, and acknowledging thoughts and emotions without judging or acting upon them, mindfulness helps people understand the way negative emotions drive disordered behaviors. Earlier, we mentioned spirituality’s role in three aspects of eating disorder treatment. Each of these aspects takes mindfulness into consideration.

For the physical aspect, mindful movement is often introduced early in treatment. Since many people with eating disorders also engage in harmful, excessive exercise that feels compulsive, a low, impact mindful exercise program helps them to stay self-aware. They can discern when their disorder is urging them to exercise without acting on it by identifying those thoughts as disordered. Yoga is very common in eating disorder treatment for this very reason; it’s a wonderful form of movement that combines exercise with meditation.

Mindfulness is also a key aspect of clinical therapy techniques like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (CBT and DBT). Both of these techniques are focused on rehabilitating a person’s behavior by helping them identify which of their emotions are disordered. With the help of a therapist using a Socratic approach to therapy, clients become mindful of their thoughts without acting on them. Eventually, they learn to let those thoughts wash over them without feeling the need to act on them. It’s a key step in reconnecting with their healthier selves.

Being mindful of one’s spiritual self is also important to long-term recovery. When feeling empty or unfulfilled with their life, it’s easier for a person suffering from an eating disorder to seek out disordered but comforting behaviors like purging or restricting. However, people in treatment often learn to nourish the spirit as well as the body to help them overcome these urges. Again, this can come through a connection with God or a person’s unique understanding of the human spirit and their place in the universe. An increased sense of spirituality provides a base of comfort when eating disorders threaten to recur.

Ask Your Treatment Center About Spirituality in Their Programs

Eating disorder treatment centers design their programs to fit their clients’ unique needs. Since every person has a different relationship to spirituality, the center will need to be flexible in its approach. When you or a loved one is suffering from an eating disorder and ready to seek treatment, you’ll likely talk to many different treatment centers. Make sure you ask the admissions staff about their center’s approach. Can they make religious food accommodations? Do they allow for prayer time? What kind of non-religious spiritual practices are taught and encouraged? Each of these questions will help you make the decision about the very important spiritual aspect of eating disorder recovery.


Melissa Orshan Spann, PhD, LMHC, RTY 200, is Chief Clinical Officer at Monte Nido & Affiliates, overseeing the clinical operations and programming for over 50 programs across the U.S. Dr. Spann is a Certified Eating Disorder Specialist and clinical supervisor as well as an accomplished presenter and passionate clinician who has spent her career working in the eating disorder field in higher levels of care. She is a member of the Academy for Eating Disorders and the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals where she serves on the national certification committee, supervision faculty, and is on the board of her local chapter. She received her doctoral degree from Drexel University, master’s degree from the University of Miami, and bachelor’s degree from the University of Florida.