Practical tips and advice for ministering to women who struggle with disordered eating.

Today I’m sharing a very special guest post.

When Christie shared a small piece of her story in the Hope*writer group, I immediately reached out and asked if she would be willing to share her experience and advice with us. As God places women in your path who are struggling with disordered eating, I pray her words will be a resource for you. – Cyndee

Christie’s story

When I was a junior in high school, I made one of the most dangerous decisions of my life: I went on a diet. 

This turned into almost a decade-long battle with an eating disorder that I kept hidden from family and friends for years. While my diet started as a simple desire to lose a few pounds, that wasn’t where it ended, and it isn’t where it ends for millions of Americans. 

Our society normalizes disordered eating and idolizes thinness in a dangerous way, even in the church. It took me years to untangle the harmful societal messages I had absorbed and come to realize that at my thinnest, I was actually at my sickest. Somehow health had taken a backseat to thinness in my life, and the culture was applauding me every step of the way. I was no longer caring for my body according to God’s plan, I was conforming to the world in a dangerous way. 

What are eating disorders?

Eating Disorders are complex illnesses, and a combination of biological, psychological, and environmental factors contribute to their development.

Here are some basic definitions according to the most recent Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders:

Anorexia Nervosa (AN) characterized by excessive restriction, weight loss, distorted body image.

Bulimia Nervosa (BN) also includes distorted body image and characterized by a cycle of bingeing and compensatory behaviors (self-induced vomiting, laxatives, over-exercise, etc.).

Binge Eating Disorder (BED) characterized by recurrent binge eating (without compensatory measures).

Other specified feeding or eating disorder (OSFED) captures feeding disorders and eating disorders of clinical severity that do not meet diagnostic criteria for other eating disorders.

How big is the problem?

An estimated 30 million Americans will battle an eating disorder at some point in their lifetime, and millions more will struggle with disordered eating. Disordered eating is unnecessary restriction of certain foods, chronic dieting, or over-eating. 

Until recently, anorexia was the number cause of death from mental illness (now surpassed by opioid use), yet too many people consider eating disorders to be a phase, a fad, a choice, or worse yet, a vanity. 

What’s scarier is, like myself, many people fall into the trap of disordered eating after dieting: 

  • 95% of all dieters will regain their lost weight in 1-5 years 
  • 35% of “normal dieters” progress to pathological dieting. Of those, 20-25% progress to partial or full-syndrome eating disorders 

(UNC School of Medicine Department of Psychiatry Center for Excellence (n.d.) 

 What signs should I look for? 

  • Weight changes, frequent weighing and body disdain
  • Preoccupation with one’s own food & others’ food
  • Ritualistic eating and/or avoidance of certain foods
  • Hiding food and eating in secret
  • Personality shifts; increased impatience, crankiness, isolation
  • Light-headedness and dizziness, abdominal pain
  • Reduced body temperature, increased sensitivity to cold
  • More frequent muscle strains, sprains, and/or fractures

What should I say if I am worried someone is struggling? 

Show care and concern – Create a person-first approach:

“I care about you too much to keep my concerns to myself. It’s about YOU, not your eating, weight, etc.”

Validate, then challenge:

“I see you’re going through a lot, AND I’m worried about the ways you’re dealing with it.”

Reframe the issue:

“If you had cancer, would you get help? Then why not for this? Let’s get you the best team of specialists, time off work and/or school and find friends and family you can confide in and go to for support.”

How does someone recover? 

Eating disorders are complex, and holistic treatment is vital to care for the whole person – mind, body, and spirit. 

Everyone’s recovery journey is different, but I believe there are three critical components to recovery: 

  • Community: We need people we can lean on to provide appropriate support and accountability. In my own recovery, it was critical that I had friends and family I could reach out to on hard days who would pray for me and support me. 
  • Experts: We need clinicians who have been expertly trained to deal with disordered eating, such as dietitians, therapists, psychiatrists, doctors, and more. My treatment team was a huge help to me when I was learning to decipher lies from truths and relearning my hunger/fullness cues. 
  • Faith: We need to surrender to God and show up as our full selves in the recovery process, realigning our actions with our beliefs and values. Believing that God cared for me and created me was pivotal in my healing journey. 

How do you know when someone is recovered? 

I knew I was recovered when I didn’t fear eating in social situations and no longer counted calories or felt controlled by food, exercise, or the scale. 

Other signs of recovery include: 

  • Effective coping and intuitive eating: Tolerating “spontaneous” natural eating and a wide variety of foods and an absence of purging, restricting and binge-eating behaviors
  • Body acceptance: Maintaining caloric/nutrient intake that supports a healthy weight and not obsessing about food, exercise, and/or body image
  • Developing a healthy identity: Having a strong sense of self, values, and healthy attachment, boundaries, etc.

How can I help someone recover?

As a ministry leader, you are equipped to meet people where they are in the midst of their struggles. You are a part of a beautiful community of trust that is able to help remove the shame that often comes with mental illness and assist your community in their recovery process. 

Here are five effective ways you can help people overcome disordered eating in your church and ministry: 

1. Encourage appropriate help and treatment:

  • Create safe spaces where people can confide in trusted clergy or lay people.
  • Train point people in small groups or prayer ministries on how to engage leadership or counselors if problems arise.
  • Meet with the family/individual and encourage they seek clinical treatment (including medication and therapy) in addition to prayer and spiritual care.

2. Create a culture that is sensitive to those struggling with food:

  • Be mindful of how you talk about or offer food in communities and social settings (don’t call food “good” or “bad” or talk about weight loss, etc.).
  • Offer other ways to fast (such as from technology) instead of food-only fasts. 
  • Stay away from community-wide diets or weight-loss challenges. 

3. Be the change to destigmatize mental health: 

  • Talk about these issues from the pulpit or during worship services, and host or promote workshops, conferences, and groups such as Rock Recovery or Finding Balance.
  • Create space for honest conversations: Host expert speakers, run courses and support groups (such as New ID) on eating disorders and mental health issues.

4. Know your limits and lanes when dealing with mental health:

  • Understand the types of care available and create a referral list of eating disorder experts in your area (CEDCN and FindEDHelp are two great places to start).
  • Refer to outside counselors and clinicians with expert eating disorder training as well as healing prayer and/or spiritual direction.

5. Support those who seek help and their families:

  • Help families keep hope and navigate the recovery process. Don’t be afraid to check-in with them and ask how they are doing. 
  • For those who need financial help, create a fund to help cover therapy costs, which can be costly and are often not covered by insurance. 

Here are some final things to remember: 

Anyone can develop an eating disorder or struggle with mental illness, even those we least expect. 

We need to challenge the stereotypes of what we think people with eating disorders “should” look like and realize that eating disorders do not discriminate and can affect people of all genders, sizes, races, ages, and backgrounds. 

Struggling with any mental illness is not a moral or spiritual failing. 

We need to check our bias and change the conversation around mental illness. People are no less of a Christian for struggling with their mental health. While unhealthy and sinful patterns might develop and result from these struggles, we need to remove the shame from the struggle so that more people seek help. 

With proper clinical treatment, a caring community, and spiritual support, recovery is possible. 

We need to show God’s love to those that struggle and have hard conversations to help people get the help they need to recover. 

What tools and resources are available to help? 

National Eating Disorder Hotline: 1-800-931-2237

Christian Books:
Affiliate links follow
Beyond Chaotic Eating – Helena Wilkinson 
Life Inside the Thin Cage – Constance Rhodes
Life Without Ed – Jenni Shaefer

Christie Dondero Bettwy serves as Executive Director for Rock Recovery, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit that helps people overcome disordered eating and body image issues by removing barriers of stigma, cost, and access to care. Having gone through recovery from an eating disorder herself, Christie understands the depth of emotional, physical and spiritual support needed to recover and is passionate about spreading the message that complete freedom from disordered eating is possible.  She is an active speaker and enjoys sharing her story with organizations and churches across the United States. Christie lives in Washington, DC with her husband Ryan, who serves as an ordained pastor in the Anglican Church of North of America. Find Christie on Instagram and Facebook.