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Religion does not promote anorexia nervosa – anyone surprised?

Posted April 13, 2017

We as a society have to live by the rules. There are laws that we must follow, social norms binding our actions, judgmental eyes of our close ones, but some people also choose to be a become a part of some religious community. Religion has many rules in itself, including diet recommendations and many scientists thought them being unhealthy, but is that true?

Religious communities in Finland are quite rare, but even so it looks like religion does not promote eating disorders. Image credit: Hans Hillewaert via Wikimedia

Scientists from the University of Helsinki decided to see if religion, which is strictly explaining the times when eating certain food is not allowed and how various forms of fasting and self-starvation should be a norm in a religious family, promotes the development of anorexia nervosa. There were saints who literally starved themselves to death on purpose, and many other ideas of religion regulate food consumption. That is why there was a belief that religion in this way alone is very unhealthy.

Finland does not have that many believers, but churches are still rather strong. Scientists followed almost 3000 women from the Finnish Twin Cohorts from the age 16 until their mid-twenties. They looked into their eating habits and how they are affected by their religious beliefs. Unsurprisingly, researchers found no evidence that religion promotes the development of anorexia nervosa.

Scientists say that religion does not seem to be affecting the development of anorexia nervosa in Finland. It means that in the absolute majority of the cases of this condition, religion plays no role at all. Also, being raised in a highly religious family does not increase one’s risk of developing this disease. In other words, there really is no link between religious practices and anorexia nervosa. However, scientists are pointing out one important limitation in the study – Finland is not the best choice for such research.

Finland is highly secular and religion is not playing a major role in public life at all. Dominant religious groups are also very open and integral with Finnish society, making them quite distant from raw religious practices – fasting is really unpopular. Dr Pyry Sipilä, author of the paper, said: “extreme religiosity is quite rare in Finland and many Protestants don’t observe Lent. Ideally, this study should be repeated in a country where fasting during religious festivals is very common”.

Scientists say that religion might actually have a positive effect on body’s image. Religious people usually tend to judge each other by their actions and not a physical image. Therefore, it probably cannot be blamed for the spread of anorexia nervosa.


Source: University of Helsinki

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