EVERY YEAR IN FEBRUARY, an entire week is dedicated to raising awareness of Eating Disorders, characterised by abnormal eating habits that involve either insufficient or excessive food intake to the detriment of a person’s physical, emotional and psychological health.

In the U.S., statistics estimate that eating disorders affect about up to five to 10 million females and one million males.

In Singapore, the numbers are climbing fast. Channel News Asia reported in 2007 that the number of teenagers with eating disorders had increased six-fold from 2002, while the Singapore General Hospital (SGH) reported 140 new cases every year with only 10-20 per cent seeking treatment.

Before 2002, SGH saw about 20-30 anorexic patients a year. In 2006, it saw 200.

Anorexia nervosa, a more popularly known eating disorder, has been recognised as a medical disorder since the late 19th century. Sufferers are obsessed with losing weight and practise self-starvation to achieve the desired weight loss. Anorexics tend to think they are fat even though they may be really thin; in addition, they have a fear of gaining weight.

Motivations for eating disorders are varied, with most studies pointing to sociocultural or psychological influences.

A study had suggested that “Jewish, Catholic and Italian cultural origins may lead to a higher risk of developing an eating disorder due to cultural attitudes about the importance of food”. (Eating Disorders: Culture and Eating Disorders, Healthy Place, America’s Mental Health Channel)

In addition, there are sufferers who employ spiritual fasting as a guise for their condition of anorexia nervosa.

Rindy Walton, a Christian mother of three in the U.S., admits as much in her blog: “Years ago, I fasted many times under the guise of spiritual fasting, yet knew the eating disorder was the real driving force.” She explains that, generally, “people who are dealing with eating disorders want to do things ‘right’. They are usually very aware of what others may think (whether accurate or not) and for the most part struggle with the eating disorder behind a wall of secrecy”.

With the proliferation of social networking sites more easily accessible today than ever, sufferers of eating disorders are able to seek out a community where they feel a sense of belonging among fellow sufferers. In fact, some have begun putting forth anorexia nervosa as a “lifestyle choice” rather than an eating disorder.

Spiritual Fasting

Within the Church, there existed saints who used to starve themselves, sometimes to the point of death, in the name of God. This condition was known as “anorexia mirabilis” which literally means “a miraculous lack of appetite”.

Blessed Angela of Foligno and St. Catherine of Siena were two of them, who apparently refused food but survived on the pus from sores of the sick. However, they do receive the Holy Eucharist to signify their devotion to God and to highlight that the spirit was much stronger than the body.

The Church ended this practice during the Renaissance, noting that it was a dangerous practice.

How then should we view spiritual fasting? Can it be considered a form of an eating disorder?

Father Anselm Phang, OCD, Spiritual Director to Kenosis Living Spring, a ministry that advocates living holistically in mind, body and spirit – cautions against excessive spiritual fasting.

“It is good to feel hungry on Church-fasting days – not just in the stomach, but for God,” said Father Anselm, who is also parish priest at Church of Sts. Peter and Paul. “But we have to be prudent when we employ ascetic practices.”

Quoting Roman 12:1-2, he said: “‘Offer up your bodies as a living sacrifice dedicated and acceptable to God.’ The Church is very wise in giving us [only] two fast days.”

“We need to be grounded,” he advised. “Not fast everyday.”

A difference between those who adopt anorexia mirabilis and sufferers of anorexia nervosa is that anorexia nervosa sufferers starve themselves to attain a level of thinness.

To that, Father Anselm said, “We tend to be led by a lot of worldly standards rather than Godly standards.”

He urges parents to teach their children about nutrition from young, not when they are in their teens because “peer pressure can be very strong”.

“The media can really mess up our idea of beautiful living – it’s not just about being thin and slim.” n

By Joyce Gan

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Others Share...

Fasting, at least in the Catholic understanding that I have, is very different from an eating disorder. To fast is to sacrifice, to give up something for the greater good, so to speak. On the other hand, a person with an eating disorder may be refusing to eat or to vomit out what they’ve eaten because of their focus on themselves and their self image. In (spiritual) fasting, the focus is not on self, but on God and on love.

Miranda Chan

Someone who has an eating disorder usually grapples with self esteem issues and somehow views thinness as something which can boost their self image. ‘If only I’m as thin as that supermodel, then I will be happy.’ Yet this quest for happiness is ever elusive and can prove fatal. As they are usually not driven by full knowledge or consent of the will, they are not sinners. Nevertheless, they need to seek treatment and be reassured of the mercy and love of God and the friendship of their peers. It is NOT NORMAL despite the portrayal of it being an alternative lifestyle choice by some pro-anorexia websites.

Food, like sex, is created by God and is thus good. A person sins only when he voluntarily regards these created things with contempt and rejects it precisely for that reason or considers them so important that they become an idol.

Fasting, on the other hand, is quite different from an eating disorder. A person forgoes food not because the object offered up is bad, but because it is good. He offers it up for something greater, that is, for God, for a cause, for a loved one.

Nick Chui

Personally I would see an eating disorder as some kind of a psychological compulsion, beyond the control of the patient. But what’s practised by saints ought to be a decision made in honour of and dependent on the Holy Eucharist. In this case, made possible with God’s grace, the person exercises it graciously and the experience should be different from that of an anorexia sufferer.

Maggie Chia

Jesus did not preach fasting unto death but to acquire purification to meet trials and temptations, just as He did for 40 days and nights in the desert before He assumed His ministry.

The real world of anorexia or bulimia is vanity. This part belongs to two main groups of young girls or women. The first group are young models and actresses who need to deprive or deny themselves of food in order to maintain their figure to remain gainfully employed in the modelling or acting careers. The second group are teenagers who want to have an hour glass body to look attractive and popular. This second group are the most vain, and the largest group known to be suffering from anorexia or bulimia.

It is my view that to deprive or deny the body of food because of vanity is certainly a sin, because our body is a temple of God, and we are to take care of it to the best we can.

Lastly, fasting is entirely different from anorexia or bulimia because fasting is normally done for a special event or purpose. For example, our Muslim brothers and sisters fast during the month of Ramadan to purify their bodies of sins. So do the monks, and we Christians also fast, but a ‘token fast’, and not full-fledged like what Jesus and Moses did for 40 days. If today, Catholics are required to fast like our Muslim brothers and sisters, our Church would be empty because there would only be a handful of Catholics left to be counted.

John Goh

I think religious fasting in moderation can be good to cleanse not only our souls but our bodies as well. Research has shown that fasting is a good way to detoxify ourselves. But going to the extreme and not eating at all is, of course, not right... When we want to fast, we have to check our intent. Are we doing it to look like the size-zero models in the magazines or are we doing it to lift the hunger that we feel to God?

Shyra (via DigitalDonkey)

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