Spirituality: A Resource for Young Women at Risk of Eating Disorders

Reprinted from Eating Disorders Review
January/February 2006 Volume 17, Number 1
©2006 Gürze Books

College-age women with strong spiritual and religious beliefs who are at high risk for eating disorders may turn to spirituality to help cope with their body image concerns, according to results of a recent study (Eating Behaviors 2005;6:293).

Dr. M. Joy Jacobs-Pilipski and colleagues at San Diego State University, Stanford University, and Washington University School of Medicine recently evaluated 255 college-age women at increased risk for eating disorders and asked them about their religious and spiritual beliefs. The women were enrolled in an Internet-delivered eating disorder prevention study.

Mood was assessed with the Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale, and coping strategies were studied with the Brief COPE (Carver, 1997), which is designed to assess coping strategies participants use when facing stressful events. Spiritual and religious beliefs and practices were assessed with a scale that was designed for this study. Participants were asked to agree or disagree with 11 statements related to their spirituality and religious practices. Those who endorsed more than half of the statements about spiritual and religious beliefs (see table, below) were considered to have strong spiritual and religious beliefs.

Spiritual/Religious Beliefs

  1. Believe in God or other higher power
  2. Religious/spiritual beliefs are important
  3. Seek out people from religious/spiritual community when help or support is needed
  4. Find strength or comfort in faith or religious/spiritual beliefs
  5. Rely on higher power or religious/spiritual beliefs to make sense of situations and to decide what to do
  6. Attend religious services because of the people who are there
  7. Carry over religious beliefs into other dealings in life
  8. Regular prayer
  9. Regular meditation
  10. Regular attendance at religious/spiritual services
  11. Regular study of religious/spiritual material

How important were spirituality and religion?

According to the authors, more than half of the participants reported that spiritual and religious beliefs were not important to them. Protestant and Roman Catholic participants were more likely than other participants to report having strong spiritual and religious beliefs and practices.

Strategies used by participants to cope with concerns about body image differed significantly, based on the importance of spirituality/religion. Those who had strong spiritual and religious beliefs were significantly more likely to read spiritual materials, to pray, and to meditate than participants who reported not having strong religious and spiritual beliefs. Those with strong spiritual and religious beliefs were also less likely to use distraction to cope with their body image distress and reported that prayer was an effective strategy of dealing with concerns about weight and shape. Participants without strong religious and spiritual beliefs were more likely to use distraction to cope with body image concerns.

The main coping strategy used by those with strong religious/spiritual beliefs was prayer. Both groups reported that exercise was the most effective strategy for coping with body image distress. Although exercise was reported to be more effective than other coping methods, including talking to friends, doing homework, or watching television, the effects were only temporary, and participants continued to have chronic weight and shape concerns.

According to the authors, spiritual and religious beliefs and practices may be an underutilized resource for coping with body image concerns, and could potentially moderate the outcome of eating disorders prevention and treatment efforts.

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