This post is an excerpt from the study guide which accompanies the “Gaining a Healthy Relationship with Food” seminar. This portion is one element from “STEP 3: UNDERSTAND the origin, motive, and history of my disordered eating.”

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The longer we’ve engaged our disordered pattern of eating, the less motive that is needed to fuel that pattern, but the stronger our allegiance to the motives that drive our eating pattern become. This is a doubled-edged sword; habits become more deeply engrained while we become more defensive towards those who will warn us against their danger.

You will likely have to be on guard against both of these realities in this chapter. The longer we do something, the more it feels like “this is just who I am” and “you’re judging-rejecting me if you warn me of its danger.” Any theories about why (i.e., motive) we eat the way we do seem both silly (it can’t be that simple) and threatening (offended at the idea of changing).

You don’t have to fix this tension right now; just acknowledge that it says something about the importance of this material. We usually don’t boldly contradict ourselves over trivial things. We get into impassioned contradictions when two things we want don’t get along. That is the terrain we are getting ready to cross.

Begin writing out or sharing with a friend your answers to these questions.

  • When did you first become weight-conscious and when was your first diet?
  • What are your frequently repeated rituals related to eating and weighing?
  • What were your family’s belief and practices regarding weight, body shape, and food?
  • What have been the most impactful experiences you’ve had related to weight and body image?
  • How important were achievement and/or appearance in your family?
  • How many times have you reached and changed your perfect weight?
  • What was your worst day of disordered eating?
  • How many diet and exercise plans have you tried?
  • How would you currently define “a healthy relationship with food”?

What did you learn about yourself or admit to yourself in these reflections?

Answering these questions was another exercise in not running away from your struggle. That is good even if it’s hard. Having these conversations with another person is an exercise in not facing your struggle alone. That is even better.

As you reviewed your history with food, see if you can answer this question, “What has become so important to you that you’re willing to jeopardize your health in order to get it?”

We will look at this more when we get to motives, but try to answer these questions as well, “When did this become so important? Who helped it become so important? How would your life be better if it were less important?”

Read James 1:1 and 4:1-10. In these passages we see a connection between history and motive. James’ readers were persecuted for their faith and dispersed in order to survive. They left their homes, their jobs, and their communities. Out of this history, what they had left became much more important to them; so important, in fact, that they fought fiercely when the things they enjoyed were called into question. Their excessive love for things (motive) was shaped by their difficult history. God was compassionate towards their history without allowing it to excuse things that would be destructive to them. As we transition from history to motive, strive to allow your disposition towards your history (compassion) and motive (without excuse) to be the same as God’s.

Motives that Drive an Unhealthy Relationship with Food

If our motive for eating was as simple as, “I’m hungry,” then we would start-stop eating in ways that would be healthy. If our motive for eating were as pure as, “To be a good steward of the body God has blessed me with,” then we would eat a balanced diet that was healthy for our body.

Unfortunately, as fallen people marred by sin, we have the innate tendency to use things (our body and our world) for reasons other than how God designed them to be used. We are not content with God’s design and believe we can “improve upon” what God called good and bad for us. This tendency has its origin in the original temptation (Gen. 3:5). We continually fall for the same lie.

The problem is not usually that we want bad things; most disordered eating is not an overt effort towards suicide-by-starvation or suicide-by-obesity. That may be the effect, but it’s rarely the motive. The motive is the good thing we want so much that we’re willing to kill ourselves, however slowly, in order to get it.

As you weigh these motives for disordered eating, ask yourself, “Is it worth it?” in light of this reality. Later we will come back and engage the question, “If these things aren’t bad, how can I enjoy them rightly?” but, for now, begin to tame the excessiveness of the motive by comparing it to its actual cost.

We will look at 10 motives that frequently drive an unhealthy relationship with food. These are not meant to be exhaustive, but represent the alternative uses we try to derive from food. If you don’t find your motive on the list, then reading through the list should allow you to put into words what you’re trying to make food do for you.

1. Relaxation: Life demands a great deal. God wants us to rest. Food can be an excellent distraction from the stresses of life. When the sense of taste is activated, it can divert our attention from sight and sound; senses we use to problem solve (i.e., visualizing solution or reading reports, and that voice in our head reasoning through various possibilities). But when this God-given diversion is over relied upon, it becomes a form of escape and soon food has become our refuge from life (contra Psalm 92:1). This is when we begin to, in effect, pray to our food; we “cast our anxieties on food” (contra I Peter 5:7). Soon we are begging an inanimate substance to deliver us from life’s woes (Psalm 115:4-8); our idol, instead of being made with gold and silver, is made with flour and sugar.

2. Reward: We work hard. Everyday requires a wide assortment of tasks. There is a perpetual battle to maintain our motivation to meet the challenges of each day. Enjoyable moments at the end of a task are a reasonable way to reward ourselves. Food makes a great treat for a “job well done.” But too often our reward system grows erratic; there is less and less achievement for more and more reward. If businesses paid their employees like we rewarded ourselves with food, then they would go bankrupt for the same reason we become obese; there is an imbalance in the reward system.

3. Control: Over-indulgence is not the only way we can abuse ourselves with food. We can also over-discipline ourselves, which is a nice way of saying “starve.” Often this pattern is tied to the desire for control. When someone’s life feels out of control they begin to look for something in which they can have a voice. Meals provide three times during the day when life cannot be forced upon them. They may not be able to master pain, but they can master hunger. They may not be able to control the hurtful words that come in their ears, but they can control the bites of food than come in the mouth. Getting some approximation of control in these self-harming ways may not seem “worth it” unless you’ve known what it is like not to be able to change the things that are most important and most hurtful in your world.

4. Appearance: We live in an appearance-oriented culture. Thin is good. Thick is bad. Carolyn Costin, in Your Dieting Daughter (p. 13), coined “The Thin Commandments” to capture the rules that begin to dominate what “win” means in a thin-obsessed culture.

    1. If you aren’t thin, you aren’t attractive.
    2. Being thin is more important than being healthy, more important than anything.
    3. You must buy clothes, cut your hair, take laxatives, starve yourself, and do anything to make yourself look thinner.
    4. Thou shall “earn” all food and shall not eat without feeling guilty.
    5. Thou shall not eat fattening food without punishing oneself afterwards.
    6. Thou shall count calories and fat and restrict intake accordingly.
    7. What the scale says is the most important thing.
    8. Losing weight is good, and gaining weight is bad.
    9. You can’t trust what other people say about your weight.
    10. Being thin and not eating are signs of true willpower and success.

While Costin makes no attempt to base her writing on Christian teaching, she beautifully illustrates what Christians have long taught about the nature of idolatry.

“Idols create laws that multiply exponentially (p. 174)… The Law of Diminishing Returns is in full force in idol worship. The behavior will grow and grow until it completely consumes you and you spend your entire life compulsively overeating, binging, purging, or starving. Your god has an insatiable hunger—and if you feed him, he’ll grow (p. 180).” Elyse Fitzpatrick in Love to Eat, Hate to Eat

5. Protection: Sometimes the idols of control and appearance can combine to create the desire to be unattractive as a form of self-protection. This is especially true for someone who has been sexually abused; preyed upon because of the attractiveness of their body. But this can also be true for those who are uncomfortable with attention from others and learn to use their size as a way to make themselves “invisible” to the kind of attention they don’t want to receive. Unfortunately, using food this way only provides the kind of protection one could get from a gang; yes, you are safe from certain dangers, but in the process you become exposed to many other dangers.

6. Companionship: Food never rejects us. Food will listen to our every woe. Food is never too busy. Food always seems to understand. These sentences reveal the mindset we’re in when we try to use food as a pseudo-community. But there is also the frequent pairing of social events and food. When people gather (i.e., holidays, parties, etc…) there tends to be food. We easily begin to think, “If I’m going to be with people, I must eat.” Whether you over-eat and this is a moment of temptation, or you over-discipline and these are moments of great stress, the pairing of food and people presents a challenge that must be navigated.

7. Numb: Food is sensual; it engages the senses. Food has taste, aroma, and texture. The more senses an activity engages, the better distraction it provides. This is why many people eat to numb emotions like anger, fear, guilt, insecurity, boredom, or shame. The multi-sensory nature of eating makes it a very effective emotional numbing agent… at least for the period of time we are eating. The problem is you can neither starve nor stuff your anger away. And, when the time of munching or starving is complete, the emotions return… compounded by the sense of failure and futility over how you’ve tried to manage them.

8. Compensate: “If I can’t [blank], then at least I can [indulge or starve myself].” When our motive is compensation, then our disordered eating becomes either a form of penance or a consolation prize for how we believe we’ve failed or life has disappointed us. The food rules we follow are not a path to righteousness (next motive), but a way to make the best of a bad situation. Our unhealthy relationship with food is our perpetual “Plan B” for when life goes wrong. The more life disappoints us, the unhealthier we become.

9. Achieve: We can turn anything into a competition. Every class, discipline, field, and activity has its “best” representative; whether its algebra, art, or hot dog eating. Achievement-oriented people strive not to be “less than” others. This is what drives them. It is a form of self-righteousness. When this mindset gets tied in with our diet, we can get so fixated on being healthy that we become unhealthy. With this motive, it is important that “healthy” is not an extreme, but a balance; healthy is not on either end of the spectrum, but in the middle. This is why we talk about a “balanced diet” as being most healthy.

10. Punish: “I’ve been bad so I should not eat.” “I’ve been bad, so I should punish myself by binging.” “I’m a bad person, so I should make it obvious to everyone by getting fat.” These motives for an unhealthy relationship with food are rooted in self-loathing. For some reason, we are prone to believe that our disgust is a better solution for our legitimate failures than God’s grace, and we believe self-harshness is a better response to our non-moral short-comings than self-compassion. We believe because “we are being hard on ourselves” then no one should be able to “criticize us” for how we’re using food and engaging life because that would be them trying to be more extreme than we already are. Hopefully as you read these few sentences that logic begins to fall apart.

Other ___________: What was missing? What motive(s) fit your unhealthy relationship with food better? How would you describe what makes them enticing and what makes them ineffective?

Here are three other reflective questions to help you identify the motive for your unhealthy relationship with food.

  • What fantasies do you think would come true if you reached your ideal weight?
  • What things will be absent when you begin the process of change?
  • If I could personify my cravings based on my experience of them, what form would they take?

Read Luke 9:23-24. In light of what you’ve been learning about yourself, reflect on this well-known passage that summarizes what it means to be a follower of Christ. Often we view this passage negatively, “You have to be willing to give up everything that’s important to you in order to follow Jesus.” But hopefully you can see the beauty of this passage now. When we are dominated by the things that are too important to us, we can’t enjoy them even when we get them. It is only when “less important things” become “less important” that we can savor the joy that God intended to provide through them.

Read Ecclesiastes (yes, the whole book). The entire book of Ecclesiastes is one long book of motives for the pursuit of peace, hope, and happiness. As you read, realize this is the journal of a very wise and influential person. Realize your motives are not new and your disappointment in what they cannot provide is not unique. Be encouraged that someone has walked your same path, experienced the same emptiness, and learned where to find the security and fulfillment you’re seeking.

If this post was beneficial for you, then considering reading other blogs from my “Favorite Posts on Disordered Eating” post which address other facets of this subject.