Overcoming Your Battle with Food
By Paula Neall Coleman
I was standing in my kitchen staring at a cabinet that was locked shut with a bicycle lock! While I was at work, my roommate had moved all of her groceries into one cabinet, placed the lock on it, and hidden the key. It seemed so extreme, but I knew it was her only way of making sure she’d have something to eat for breakfast in the morning. Almost every night, I raided the fridge and the cabinets, eating “everything that wasn’t nailed down.” Actually, I left most of the canned vegetables, but Karen didn’t really enjoy green beans with her coffee!
How did it get that bad? I was in full-time ministry and was very familiar with how Scripture applied to the struggles of life. Why then did I constantly fight–without ever winning for any length of time–the “battle of the bulge”? How many times had I pleaded with God to help me stick to a diet? How many times had I lost and regained the same 30 to 60 pounds?
Overeating and weight gain had plagued me since childhood. I started binge eating and was considered “chubby” when I was eight years old. Through the years, my weight constantly yo-yoed. I could stay on a diet for several weeks, but I’d always reach a point when I felt I had to either binge or die! By the time I was 30, I was regularly sticking to a strict diet for three days and then binge eating on the fourth.
The contradictions I saw in my life were extremely painful and bewildering. On the one hand, I appeared to others to epitomize the “committed Christian” who had it all together spiritually. But, on the inside, I felt like a failure. Far from living in victory, I was expending a tremendous amount of emotional energy on obsessing over my weight, begging God to help me get thin, and worrying about every bite of food I ate. Even worse, I was occasionally using laxatives to expel large meals and binges, thinking I would prevent the calories from getting a chance to “stick.”
It was the potential of seriously abusing laxatives that scared me enough to venture into a new way of thinking about my eating and weight. A friend was hospitalized for bulimia and complications from laxative abuse. I felt I had to take action before I ended up in a hospital bed too. Thinking I could forego hospitalization if I did the treatment on my own, I bought all the books my friends’ doctors recommended.
Starting with the first book, even though it was secular, I felt as though I had been hit with a bolt of lightning. The author was describing how women’s beliefs motivate their overeating, and it suddenly dawned on me how the biblical concepts to which I’d been exposed for years in ministry applied to my battle with overeating. Seeing secular authors find freedom from overeating and related obsessions, I thought, How much more should I, in whom the Comforter dwells and who relies on the authority of Scripture, be able to change my thinking and find freedom in the truth? This was the beginning of the end–the end of all the diets, binge eating, obsessions with food, and multiple wardrobes.
Over the course of about 20 months, I slowly re-examined basic biblical principles and applied them to my overeating, dieting, and preoccupation with appearance and weight. The following is a synopsis of what I discovered:
- Overcoming overeating is not simply a matter of having self-discipline. I had a lot of discipline in nearly every other area of my life. Why did I lack it in this area alone? Not only is overeating not a matter of lacking self-discipline, but also trying to control eating results in having less control, less discipline (see Rom. 7:7-8 and Col. 2:20-23).
- There are reasons why women feel a need to be large or to consider themselves fat, despite cultural and social pressures to be thin. Women’s beliefs about what it means to be fat or thin can lead to them being more emotionally comfortable when they’re fat than they are when they’re thin. Throughout the New Testament, the authors addressed erroneous beliefs that resulted in negative behavior and asked their readers to believe in God’s truth, expecting a change in behavior would result. Until beliefs about fat and thin and what these concepts mean to us are revealed and changed, the behaviors that result from these beliefs (overeating and remaining overweight) will not change. When I admitted I actually feared being thin as much or more than I desired it, I was able to entrust my fears to the Lord and the urge to overeat greatly decreased.
- Eating is often a way to meet emotional needs or suppress painful emotions. When I understood the provisions God has made for meeting my needs and expressing negative feelings, the desire to overeat in the face of uncomfortable emotions diminished. My pattern was Psalm 71. That guy let it all hang out with the Lord–but he eventually came around to God’s perspective and found peace.
- Our culture puts way too much emphasis on women’s appearance and on being thin. The world tries to get our focus away from God’s values and onto assessing our worth on the basis of our weight or appearance. Seeing me as God sees me relieved the pressure to be an unrealistically thin size (see 1 Sam. 16:7).
- We were not designed to mentally control our food intake. Our bodies are designed with an excellent signaling system that tells us when we need to eat, how much we need to eat, and even what we need to eat. This system is called physical hunger, but most women are convinced that they cannot trust their bodies to tell them what they need to eat and when. It is clear in Ephesians 5:29 that what’s natural is to do what is good for our bodies. Also, as Christians, one attribute of our new nature is self-control (Gal. 5:23). Self-control is not the same as the discipline that’s involved in dieting, because that kind of discipline is imposed through rules and regulations from outside ourselves. A Christian’s self-control is the natural outgrowth of the inward presence of the Holy Spirit. When we act in ways that are not good for our bodies or are not self-controlled, we are not “being ourselves.” I gradually relearned the natural way to eat–in response to physical hunger.
My experience was that knowing the truth in these areas set me free (Jn. 8:32). I don’t diet. I don’t weigh myself. I don’t worry about what I can and cannot eat. What a relief it has been for many years now to have much more energy and much less anxiety because my focus is no longer on my weight and overeating! I thank God that He makes it clear in His Word that we can experience total freedom from this painful distraction.
Where to Begin…
Examine Your Beliefs About God.
I began with examining my beliefs about God and His interest in the details and struggles of my life. Was God waiting for me to “shape up” before He could use me? Did He expect me to get disciplined, deny myself, and lose that weight? As I prayerfully pondered these questions, my heart was deeply touched by passages with which I was very familiar but suddenly had new meaning. In Second Corinthians 1, Paul describes trials God allowed so that “we might not rely on ourselves but on God” (vs. 9). I wasn’t being shipwrecked or beaten, but I was being beaten down by my many failures at dieting. I changed my mind about God’s attitude toward me and my fat. It wasn’t up to me to do all the work; God wanted me to learn a deeper reliance on Him and His power (Zech. 4:6). Start by believing God wants to provide freedom through a dependent relationship with Him.
Explore What the Bible Says About Eating.
When Jesus and His disciples were walking through grain fields and became hungry, they picked heads of grain and ate them. When Peter was on a rooftop and became hungry, a meal was prepared. It appears to be a given in Scripture that hunger is a signal for eating. I compared my signals for eating and realized I never ate because of hunger, but because it was time to eat or because I was stressed, depressed, or angry. Relearning how to respond to hunger (and it is relearning because we all started out responding to hunger when we were small children) took experimentation and a willingness to spend time actually tuning into the physical signals of hunger. Although it seemed self-focused, it eventually paid off and shifted my focus totally away from food, because we’re all designed to do this automatically. I no longer consciously examine if I’m hungry or not. If I’m physically hungry, I look for food I really want to eat. If I’m not physically hungry, I don’t think about food. Explore books on this subject, such as Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch (New York: St. Martins Press, 2003), that provide exercises on how to identify physical hunger and satiation.
Choose to Live for an “Audience of One.”
While I was experimenting with hunger and satiation, I gained some weight which was scary! This led me to prayerfully consider whose negative opinions I feared. Choosing to live for an “audience of one” freed me from the constant concern over whether others would disapprove of my size. In 1 Samuel 16:7 and 2 Peter 3:3-4, we clearly see that God does not make judgments on the basis of appearance, but looks at the heart–and my heart was in pretty good shape thanks to Jesus (see Heb. 8:10)! It’s not easy, but it’s right to concentrate on inner beauty and resist the pressure of the culture that wants to press us into its mold, a mold that’s constantly changing anyway. Just take a look at nudes painted by Rembrandt or Renoir, and you’ll see that thin was not always “in.”
Look at the Emotions Behind Your Eating.
Emotional eating was a major component of my overeating, so I studied how people in the Bible addressed their negative emotions and learned they openly and honestly expressed them to God. I had not really done this before, thinking God expected me to be a “good Christian” and not even feel or think anything negative. Apparently many psalmists didn’t think this! They say messy, even alarming things to God—often questioning His goodness and provision. The more you start “getting real” with God, the less you’ll find yourself turning to food in the face of uncomfortable emotions.
Examine Your Beliefs about Being Thin.
My overeating dramatically lessened when I asked God to reveal to me any beliefs I had about being thin that actually motivated me to stay fat. Once I was willing to acknowledge such beliefs, several came flooding to my mind: Wouldn’t I be overly proud? Might I face more sexual temptation? Would people concentrate on my looks and ignore my inner qualities? Then, for each fear, I asked God how He would provide. For example, I was terrified of falling into sexual sin and saw my fat as a way to avoid temptation. But through God’s Word, God reassured me that He had given me a desire for purity (Eph. 4:24) and that His Spirit provides me with self-control (Gal. 5:23), as well as a way to escape every temptation (1 Cor. 10:31). Ask God what fears may be motivating you to stay fat and let Him minister to you in regard to each fear.
Turning my focus from self-effort (dieting) to God’s work in and through me required a deeper dependence upon God than I’d exercised before, but it became a rewarding pattern for all of my life and ministry, not just in resolving my overeating.