Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Celebrating Religious Freedom: How Do Food Practices Fit Into Recovery?

By Michel Harris, MS, RD, LDN, CDE
I was raised in a Catholic household that practiced several food-related restrictions during the holidays. Even though the symbolism behind these practices was discussed in religious education classes, this was skewed by the weight loss talk of the adults around me. At the beginning of every Lent season, there were discussions about who was giving up certain foods during those forty days, with the hopes of losing some weight. Once those forty days were over, everyone binged on those forbidden foods. When I was in high school, several of my friends who fasted for Ramadan would continue this practice once the celebration was over because they had lost weight. Most of my friends following Jewish practices fasted on Yom Kippur and numerous other days that were days of religious observance. 

Maybe these scenarios sound familiar to you or perhaps there are other food-related practices unique to your religion. For those with eating disorders, participating in these meaningful, but sometimes restrictive practices, may pose a threat to the recovery process. This month at The Awakening Center, religious freedom is being celebrated. Food restrictions are often a part of one’s religious beliefs, but what should one do when recovering from an eating disorder?

First, I challenge you to look at all the food-related practices of your religion, and consider the symbolism behind each. If you honestly do not know why these practices are important, do some research! For most of my clients, the true meaning behind their religious practices are lost because they are followed with the intent of controlling one’s weight and/or intake.

Second, consider where you are in your recovery. If you are thinking about participating in celebrations that involve fasting or restrictions, would you be able to resume your recovery eating plan upon the conclusion of the event? For my clients who are in the beginning stages of recovery, they usually are not ready to partake in this part of a religious celebration because of struggles with their meal plan.

Unfortunately, whether self-imposed or from others, guilt for not following these practices often sets in. One of my clients verbalized that her parents were upset with her for choosing not to eliminate meat from her meal plan during Lent. Keep in mind that others who are not going through the challenge of restoring mindful eating and behaviors may not understand why you cannot risk relapsing.

When deciding if you are ready to participate in food-related religious practices, discuss the pros and cons with your therapist and nutritionist (if you are seeing one!). Also, speaking with an empathetic leader of your place of worship may be helpful. In most cases, those with medical conditions are pardoned from these practices.

Most importantly, do what’s best for your health and recovery! There are other fulfilling things you can do during a season of celebration to honor your beliefs. I myself no longer “give up” something during Lent. Instead, I try to do at least one act of kindness towards another person every day of the season. So celebrate your religion, and honor the religions of others with an open mind!

Michel Harris a Registered and Licensed Dietitian and serves on the staff of The Awakening Center. She believes in the mindful approach to develop a peaceful relationship with food and exercise in the recovery process of eating disorders. To find out more or to set up an appointment with Michel, call 773.929.6262.


  1. This is great Michel! I particularly like the idea of speaking with one's religious leader. We often forget that most religious leaders are also trained in some form of counseling and are bound to confidentiality as well. Such a great suggestion!

  2. Beautifully put Michel. Thank you for this post! I remember using Lent as an excuse to restrict a certain food type as well. So many holidays and traditions have lost their original purpose and message, so I really appreciate the suggestion of researching them to find the meaning it can have in your own life.

  3. So interesting. I have never thought about how I use these traditions to explain many of my bad eating habits, or not eating habits.