Alternative Eating Styles

Nathan Richardson

In a previous post (Alternative Breathing Styles), I explained that the LDS church’s position against the practice of homosexuality is motivated by love for people who experience same-sex attraction. Many proponents of homosexuality find this hard to understand or believe. They might say, “I am not interested in changing, and I certainly don’t consider homosexuality a problem I have.” Why then would a loving person think they needed to change?

Jeff Lindsay drew a rather humorous comparison between homosexuality and smoking. However, I think a more apt analogy is eating disorders.

Eating disorders, such as bulimia and anorexia, constitute mental illnesses that have complicated origins which are not fully understood. As with homosexuality, people with eating disorders take a bodily function and distort its plain, natural purpose. It’s a condition that brings a lot of suffering to people, and if you think it’s only physical health that declines, then you should learn more about eating disorders. One interesting thing is that victims often don’t recognize their own unfortunate condition. One of the effects of a mental illness like anorexia is that it distorts one’s own self-perception and prevents people from seeing the misery, pain, and danger they’re causing themselves. And like homosexuality, an eating disorder is not a chemical addiction, but it is no less an addiction, similar to cutting, pornography, gambling, and other behavioral addictions. Thus, even experimenting with it can cause someone to be ensnared in it.

Of course, as with any analogy, this one also has limitations. For example, bulimics don’t have a wide history of being unfairly mistreated. Also, bulimia and anorexia have clear negative medical consequences; the medical consequences of homosexuality are less visible and less talked about.1 There is also less of a moral component to eating disorders. However, both have negative spiritual and mental consequences, as with any addiction or mental illness.

Imagine if someone said, “I’d like to help bulimics and anorexics overcome their eating disorders and lead healthy, normal lives,” and was responded to with accusations of bigotry and hate. “They don’t want to change!” While that is true of many people with eating disorders, it doesn’t make it any less compassionate to desire to help them change.

On the other end, imagine if someone said, “I accept people with eating disorders. In fact, I have a support website with ideas for how to keep yourself from eating.”2 That is not called support; it’s called indulgence. How is encouraging someone in an unhealthy, physically and spiritually dangerous lifestyle a loving thing to do?


1. For examples of the negative medical effects of homosexuality, see LifeSiteNews, “Physician Says Science of Medical Consequences of Homosexual Behaviour is Being Trumped by Political Agenda,”, accessed 11 Jun. 2008. For a discussion of why they aren’t talked about, see A. Dean Byrd, “The American Journal of Public Health Highlights Risks of Homosexual Practices,”, accessed 11 Jun. 2008.
2. In fact, many such websites exist. They are often called pro-ana sites (pro-anorexia). They usually state that their purpose is to lend emotional support to those who already have an eating disorder, rather than encourage them or recruit new victims. However, the contents of such sites clearly can only serve to further ingrain someone in their disorder, as well as provide interest and instruction for the novice. See this list, for example.


  1. Great point Nathan. I have not seen a better comparison. It’s funny how society is so ready and willing to jump in and help an anorexic but will turn around and try to protect a homosexual. They both need help!

  2. You make a good point. However, if you think no one would look at anorexia the way they do homosexuality, you are wrong. Would you say Ghandi on hunger strike had a mental illness? I found an interesting site that actually makes a good argument for depathologizing anorexia, recognizing agency, and then working with individuals who show any desire to change.

  3. Thanks, Michelle, Dan-o, and Doc. Doc, I think you may have misunderstood the purpose of the post you referred to. The author specifically says, “I am not advocating the declassification of Anorexia Nervosa.”

    The author was being ironic in using Ghandi as an example. It seems he uses Ghandi as an example of overdiagnosing (a hunger strike is not the same thing as anorexia). His irony is meant to “encourage those of us dealing with these cases to try to understand the underlying dynamics and be innovative in their management.” He actually confirms that anorexia is a problem. Such an important problem that he fears that relying on force-feeding or medication decreases creativity in treatment, and is not as effective as addressing the underlying psychological issues.

    I agree with him. I likewise fear that people on both sides of the issue of homosexuality often propose unhelpful solutions, and that we ought to study more the underlying psychological issues. If you want to read a good example that is an encouraging start, read Dr. Jeffrey Robinson’s “Homosexuality: What Works and What Doesn’t Work.”

  4. I fear we are talking past each other. Please understand, my point is certainly not that homosexuality is good or that looking for a way to change it is bigotry or hate. Without doubt, the author does acknowledge that anorexia is a problem, but he also argues that the labelling and pathologizing of anorexia are also problems. Primarily because they marginalize the agency and choice involved in the individual.

    The point I got from the post is that the medical model is not always an effective way to look at mental illness, precisely because the solutions are more complex than those the medical model will typically advocate. It argues that the only way anyone will ever change is if they want to. It also argues that respect for the individual will help in effecting change, in essence, tolerance and respect for an individuals choices is important and a good thing.

    Maybe I am off base. I just thought using the word indulgence was a little strong. I fear it encourages counterproductive and hurtful behavior, as you say, based in fear. It’s a fine line to love an individual regardless of their choices without actually encouraging or strengthening the same choices. Yet, as I am sure you would agree, it is the right line to walk.

  5. Nathan,

    Homosexuality was once considered a mental illness, but was removed from the DSMIV for political reasons. There was no scientific basis for this decision (not that there ever could be). I agree that the trend to “de-pathologize” homosexuality is motivated mainly by attempts to give the behavior credibility in the public eye.

    However, as a student of psychology, I too am beginning to question the medical metaphor when applied to human action and human behavior. I generally support the idea of keeping (or returning) homosexuality as a medical pathology, but mostly because this gives us, for the time being, a semi-legitimate claim that such behavior ought to be changed.

    Right now, the world only trusts science; few people want to claim that an action is wrong on moral grounds alone. Is it possible that we ought to help people change homosexual habits of thoughts purely on the basis that such thoughts can lead to immoral behavior and inhibit their moral progression? These habits, although in many cases unintentionally started, are just that: habits, and habits can be hard to break, and sometimes people need help. Habits of homosexual thoughts may be destructive and morally dangerous, and ought to be changed, if possible.

    However, the scientific world doesn’t accept the moral argument, and therefore when it wants to condemn a pattern of behavior, it uses medical metaphors to do so; we all recognize diseases as things to be cured and eradicated, and don’t feel the need to draw on morality to make that claim. Thus, it is possible that when science applies the medical metaphor to human behavior, it pathologizes crime and sin, so that it can condemn them without drawing on morality. For example, kleptomania, adolescent anti-social behavior, even sibling relational disorder are all pathologies included in the DSMIV.

    I am not saying that there are no mental illness; only that we ought to be cautious when applying the medical metaphor to human behavior.

    These are just a few of the thoughts I’ve had the past few days. What do you think? It’s just a possibility.

  6. OK Doc, I think I understand better the point you’re trying to make. Thanks for clarifying; sorry if I was talking past you.

    Jeff and Doc, I think I understand what you mean by the medical model of mental illness, and the problems it creates. You’ve both made me think about this in a way I haven’t for a long time. The question it leads me to is, what other models are available for mental illness? I wonder what other models have been used or proposed. Do either of you know of any?

    Doc: I just thought using the word indulgence was a little strong. I fear it encourages counterproductive and hurtful behavior, as you say, based in fear.

    By indulgence, I didn’t mean just acknowledging a homosexual person’s power to make choices in his private life (that’s definitely something I’m for). I meant the approach many take, such as in school clubs, that actively teach impressionable people, “Experiment with homosexuality. Try it out to see if it suits your fancy.” I try very hard to consistently distinguish between people who experience same-sex attraction and are confused as to what to do about it, and people who vigorously try to recruit as many people into the homosexual lifestyle as possible (and tell them that as long as you treat medical consequence, there’s no cost). Does that make sense? Would you consider that indulgence, too?

    It’s a fine line to love an individual regardless of their choices without actually encouraging or strengthening the same choices. Yet, as I am sure you would agree, it is the right line to walk.

    Absolutely. Do you think it’s possible to love someone very strongly while still being constantly ready to help them abandon bad habits to whatever degree they’re ready?

    Jeff: Is it possible that we ought to help people change homosexual habits of thoughts purely on the basis that such thoughts can lead to immoral behavior and inhibit their moral progression?

    Totally. That’s what bishops do. Is there room for that in the social science practices currently?

  7. I just found a book online and thought the title and description were interesting. It is called “Deceptive Diganoses: When Sin is Called Sickness.” Here is the book summary:

    In the mid-1960’s, a major shift occurred in the church. Instead of calling sinful and deviant behavior “sin”, it was labeled “sickness”. Now instead of seeking God’s definitions and explanations of human behavior, more and more people are accepting a secular worldview based on humanistic psychology rather than the Bible. Believers have been duped into thinking they are sick and need recovery. Of course, this diagnosis removes accountability.

    I have not read this book, and will probably never get around to it. I just think that it is interesting that some scholars have published on the topic of our conversation, and believe that we should be careful in pathologizing sin.

    I don’t disagree with your post, Nathan. I like it a lot; I’m just introducing possibilities to discuss. I’ve haven’t really thought about this very deeply before.

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