How to Make Religious Holidays More Rewarding for Loved Ones with Eating Disorders
April 14, 2022
When working at an eating disorder treatment center, no two days are ever quite the same. Almost a year ago, I heard from a former patient of ours at The Renfrew Center of Chicago, a nationally recognized eating disorder treatment facility, that she had a deflating experience with her outpatient dietician. Unlike her treatment with us, this clinician was not sensitive to the customs and practices of the Jewish religion.
Leah* came from an Orthodox Jewish background. Passover was typically a triggering time for her because she sometimes struggled with eating disorder behaviors, such as purging. Reaching out to her outpatient dietitian for support, her dietitian made suggestions that were not in alignment with Leah’s traditions. She recommended restaurants that were not kosher and foods that were not Passover-friendly. Meanwhile, Leah struggled without a space to explore how her attitudes around food and body were presently impacted by religion, a major holiday, and the intensification of the geopolitical Israel-Palestine conflict. Leah courageously shared this with our team, recognizing that the dietician’s pieces of nutrition advice were not helpful – not for her recovery or the broader affirmation of her identity.
American Civic Life
American Civic Life
American Civic Life
Unfortunately, Leah’s experience is all too common. Approximately 29 million Americans will experience an eating disorder at some point in their lifetime. While we may envision the archetype of an eating disorder as a thin white teenage girl, eating disorders affect people of all genders, racial, religious, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Even healthcare professionals, who have trained for years to be highly skilled in their helping vocation, often lack access to adequate education on eating disorders and cultural inclusion. In this month of April, it feels especially crucial to consider how best to support people in our lives as they navigate holidays and recovery in the context of their traditions.
It is not often that the holiest seasons of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam converge! This April, we’ll see millions of Americans celebrate Easter, Passover, and Ramadan. Religious holidays offer a time to connect with family, feel the strength of community, build new memories, reflect and reaffirm commitments, and find celebration in these challenging times. However, religious festivals can also be a triggering time for individuals struggling with eating disorders. Many holidays feature more restrictive food rules, fasting practices, or are highly centered around preparing food and eating it in front of others. Especially, during festivals like these, conundrums can occur when patients use their observance of religious rituals as an effort to obscure or even perpetuate use of their eating disorder symptoms.
Still, religion and spirituality are multifaceted. Religious customs and food traditions are not inherently harmful and counterproductive for recovery. Religion more broadly often offers individuals a community, a method of coping during difficult times, a basis for self-worth and values, and a sense of identity. Additionally, affiliation with a religious community, and satisfaction and security in one’s beliefs, can even be a protective factor for disordered eating and body image concerns. It is important to remember that religion is individual, familial, cultural, and political. Generational trauma, particularly among marginalized religious and ethnic communities, can sprout invisible but significant influences on identity development and attitudes around food and body image.
This can all feel overwhelming. How do we support those in recovery this month? We might not always know the right things to say. But, as the holidays commence and continue throughout these weeks, helping your family member or friend make a plan can be the first caring step. Many traditions acknowledge and uphold that fasting and eating restrictions are not safe for everyone. For example, when Muslims are traveling, ill, diabetic, breastfeeding, or menstruating, they are not obliged to fast during Ramadan. Themes of life, health, and well-being come first in all these traditions. For a holiday like Ramadan, you can suggest that a friend take a fast from a non-food related item, such as social media, or suggest they add in something, like volunteering, reading, or rest.
Recognize still that there might be shame, guilt, or discomfort people feel in following a meal plan, not fasting, or eating traditionally forbidden foods, especially when those practices are different from their family. Often, these holidays offer a time for reflection, when emotional tolerance skills can be used, and when faith can serve as a motivation and reaffirmation for recovery.
Celebrating a major religious holiday while in eating disorder recovery, whether this month, or any month, can be both challenging and rewarding for our friends and family members. Just as holidays are communal, recovery often “takes a village” as well. Perhaps this month presents a unique opportunity, to take a step toward greater understanding and appreciation of diverse customs within our community, and to explore how we can embody the nature of these holidays in both traditional and nontraditional practices, that promote physical and mental wellbeing for each person at each plate. There is room for all of this – all of us – at the table this April.
*Name has been changed to maintain confidentially.
Hannah Podhorzer (she/her) graduated from Elon University in 2019, where she worked as a Multifaith Engagement intern for three years. Now, she serves as the Professional Relations Representative for The Renfrew Center of Chicago, where she collaborates with professional and community partners in providing patients access to eating disorder treatment. You can learn more about The Renfrew Center, and its faith-based programs here.