Religion, Spirituality and Eating Disorders

By Mollie Schlapp-Gilgoff, LMSW
Reviewed by Amy Baker Dennis, PhD, FAED

What is the Relationship Between Religion, Spirituality, and Eating Disorders?

There is limited research on the role of religion and spirituality in the development and treatment of eating disorders, however the existing literature has found that religion and spirituality can be both a protective factor and risk factor.1 For example, studies have found that having strong positive religious beliefs which are internalized and intrinsically motivated are associated with lower rates of disordered eating and body image issues.2,3 Additionally, seeing the body as sacred is associated with greater body satisfaction and decreased rates of eating disorder symptomatology.4 On the other hand, religious beliefs which are motivated by external pressures, having an anxious or doubtful relationship with one’s concept of a deity and viewing the body as needing to be controlled or oneself as inherently a “sinner” are associated with higher levels of disordered eating, eating disorder symptomatology and body image issues.2,5

Given the significant impact that religious beliefs and practices can have on eating disorder symptomatology and body image issues, it’s important that treatment providers are aware of how a client’s faith may impact their recovery and work with them to be culturally competent and explore both how their religious identity and beliefs can aid them in their recovery and the challenges it may pose to the treatment process. 1,6

What is the Impact of Religious Fasting and Dietary Restriction on Eating Disorder Recovery?

Several religious traditions have holidays and customs that involve fasting or dietary restrictions. For example, the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur involves fasting from sunset on one day to nightfall the following day, Muslims who fast from dawn to sunset during the month of Ramadan and Catholics who fast during Lent. For people who struggle with disordered eating or are in recovery from an eating disorder, these religious practices can pose unique challenges. Since restrictive dieting can be a risk factor for the development of an eating disorder, periods of religious fasting can be triggering for those who struggle with disordered eating, body image issues, or who already have an eating disorder diagnosis.7 Indeed, studies have found that religious fasting can increase the risk of disordered eating when a person is already exhibiting symptoms of an eating disorder or is using fasting in order to control their weight rather than for religious reasons only.8

While periods of fasting can be challenging for those who struggle with disordered eating or an eating disorder, for many their faith and traditional practices can serve as a source of strength and aid in the recovery process. However, it is important that people with eating disorders consult with their treatment provider(s) to discuss how to safely fast and reduce the risk of triggering the eating disorder or engaging in any behaviors that could compromise their mental and physical health.9

It is also important to note that many religions allow followers to be exempt from fasting when it is medically necessary or if the person’s life may be at risk. For example, many spiritual advisors have described food as a necessary medical treatment for individuals with eating disorders and understand that fasting can be harmful to their health. As an alternative to traditional fasting, they may suggest that people with eating disorders can choose to “fast” on something else that would be a sacrifice for the day (i.e., giving up the telephone, texting, gaming) thereby honoring the purpose of the religious holiday or tradition.


[1] Lucchetti, G., Koenig, H. G., & Lucchetti, A. L. G. (2021). Spirituality, religiousness, and mental health: A review of the current scientific evidence. World journal of clinical cases, 9(26), 7620–7631.

[2] Akrawi, D., Bartrop, R., Potter, U., & Touyz, S. (2015). Religiosity, spirituality in relation to disordered eating and body image concerns: A systematic review. Journal of eating disorders, 3, 29.

[3] Richards, P. S., Weinberger-Litman, S., Berrett, M. E., & Hardman, R. K. (2020). Spirituality, religion, and eating disorders. Handbook of Spirituality, Religion, and Mental Health, 99–118. 

[4] Goulet, C., Henrie, J., & Szymanski, L. (2017). An Exploration of the Associations Among Multiple Aspects of Religiousness, Body Image, Eating Pathology, and Appearance Investment. Journal of Religion & Health, 56(2), 493–506. 

[5] Mitra, B., Archer, D., Hurst, J., & Lycett, D. (2023). The Role of Religion, Spirituality and Social Media in the Journey of Eating Disorders: A Qualitative Exploration of Participants in the “Tastelife UK” Eating Disorder Recovery Programme. Journal of Religion and Health.

[6] Richards, P. S., Caoili, C. C., Crowton, S. A., Berrett, M. E., Randy K. Hardman, R. K., Jackson, R. N.,& Sanders, P. W. (2018). An exploration of the role of religion and spirituality in the treatment and recovery of patients with eating disorders. Spirituality in Clinical Practice. Available at:

[7] Hilbert, A., Pike, K. M., Goldschmidt, A. B., Wilfley, D. E., Fairburn, C. G., Dohm, F. A., Walsh, B. T., & Striegel Weissman, R. (2014). Risk factors across the eating disorders. Psychiatry research, 220(1-2), 500–506.

[8]Angelova, R. A., & Utermohlen, V. (2013). Culture-specific influences on body image and eating distress in a sample of urban Bulgarian women: the roles of faith and traditional fasting. Eating Behaviors, 14(3), 386–389.

[9] Abolaban, H., & Al-Moujahed, A. (2017). Muslim patients in Ramadan: A review for primary care physicians. Avicenna journal of medicine7(3), 81–87.