Disordered Thinking: The Heart of Eating Disorders

by Yousra Elhawary

“What I want you to know is, there is no actual cure, you just learn to continue living with it,” said a middle-aged Western woman (X) who struggled for over a decade with her eating disorder.

Eating disorders are among the most common mental disorders, particularly prevalent in Western countries. Anxiety and distress, social media influences, unattainable beauty standards, and technological advancements in this part of the world are thought to be major contributing factors (1). These factors highlight how geographical, economic, and social environments play a crucial role in spreading what became a global problem in 2023.

Eating disorders are defined as “abnormal eating behaviours that adversely affect a person’s physical or mental health” (2). There are various types, such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder.

A Transition, Not a Sudden Body Reaction

Eating disorders are also seen as a continuum,  representing the final phase following a period of disordered eating within the spectrum of a person’s eating behaviour. This spectrum shows how disordered eating can evolve from a phase of optimised eating—purposeful and individualised nutrition practices intended to balance health and body performance.

When I asked X why she thinks there is no cure for her eating disorder, despite some people successfully overcoming it, she answered, “Many studies have shown that it is less likely to be fully cured, and you just continue living trying to control it.”

“Definitely, eating is a desire that every human being lives with, and everyone needs to control it. However, some are vulnerable to imbalances due to failure in controlling one’s desires,” I replied.

My answer was derived from an Islamic worldview, which outlines eating as one of the human desires (shahawat), such as sleeping, talking, and sexual desires, all requiring continuous self-control and regulation. This leaves us in a state of continuous struggle with the self.

Interestingly, although “to struggle” (Mujahadah) by definition means “striving to achieve or attain something in the face of difficulty or resistance,” (3) in the psychological health and well-being domain, it refers to lacking a sense of well-being and likely experiencing emotional distress or psychosocial impairment.

Concepts and Perspectives: Differences in Interpreting Reality

A similar variation in using terminologies, and particularly in X’s case in perceiving the concept of ‘control’, tends to dramatically change our lens on reality and how we choose to deal with it. This raises a vital question: do we choose to believe that the environment and our biology control us, or is it us controlling our minds, perceptions, and bodily functions?

While the concept of individual autonomy in controlling decisions and choices has garnered significant attention in the field of behavioural genetics (4), asserting that individuals shape their identities through patience, resilience, and high self-esteem, it is crucial to recognize the multifaceted influence of environments on our existence. Numerous studies underscore the pivotal role environments play in shaping our behaviours, attitudes, and overall development. Thus, while personal attributes undoubtedly contribute to our sense of agency and self-determination, the complex interplay between genetics, psychology, and environmental factors highlights the dynamic nature of human behaviour and the importance of nurturing conducive surroundings for growth and well-being.

Consistently with Allah’s command to the Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ): “Keep yourself content.” Quran 18:28. This verse, as interpreted in many exegeses, refers to the significance of our environment, especially the company we keep. Also he (ﷺ) cautioned, “Man follows his friend’s religion, you should be careful who you take for friends”, highlighting the profound impact of social connections and the importance of surrounding ourselves with positive influences that nurture contentment and virtue.

Insightful Legislation Amid Modern Challenges

On the other hand, we see how flawlessly the regulations in the religion of Islam were legislated to empower human beings throughout their entire lives, regardless of how environments change over centuries or the number of worldly temptations media colourise.

Undoubtedly, the accessibility to numerous food varieties today and how they are manufactured to fit the capitalist system increases our desires and temptations to consume and indulge (5).

However, Islam’s teachings guide us to cultivate self-control gradually and joyfully, starting from early childhood. As we grow, we come to appreciate the value of worship practices such as fasting, especially when confronting the temptations of the postmodern era.

We also learn invaluable lessons from the teachings of the most humble creation humanity has ever witnessed, the Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ). Instructing his companions to “Eat and drink: But waste not by excess, for Allah loves not the wasters” (Quran 7:31), his life exemplified values of moderation and simplicity, reflected in his diet consisting of dates, oil, vinegar, barley bread, and honey. 

A Tip for a Life Course Approach

Embracing a framework grounded in Islamic teachings, we certainly believe that any healing journey begins with profound consideration and deep belief in The Healer and The Most Powerful. Trust (Tawakkul) and full reliance on His capability form the foundation from which we derive the strength to decide, choose, and behave. Hence a continuous state of remembrance (Dhikr) serves as a catalyst to regulate one’s emotions and overcome many distresses, anxieties, and struggles in life.

Nonetheless, this necessitates setting one’s strategy towards recovery and optimised well-being, by creating safe environments (both digital and physical) that help cultivate moderate healthy habits and avoid excessive or obsessive behaviours, with a firm belief of his saying (ﷺ) that “Allah does not look at your figures nor at your attire but He looks at your hearts and accomplishments”. 

In conclusion, by re-conceptualizing ill concepts based on our firm faith within the comprehensive framework of Islamic principles, we can regulate and control how our bodies react. This way of viewing facts enables us to freely choose and create healthy environments that help us suppress many disorders and maintain our well-being for longer, by the grace of Allah ﷻ.


  1. https://worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/eating-disorders-by-country. (Accessed Friday, May 10th).
  2. American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association. pp. 329–354. ISBN 978-0-89042-555-8.
  3. https://languages.oup.com/google-dictionary-en/
  4. Plomin, R., & Colledge, E. (2001). Genetics and psychology: Beyond heritability. European Psychologist, 6(4), 229–240. https://doi.org/10.1027/1016-9040.6.4.229
  1. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/food-can-be-literally-addictive-new-evidence-suggests/

2 thoughts on “Disordered Thinking: The Heart of Eating Disorders

  1. Naghma Ferdos says:

    Eating disorder is how we have an relationship with food but also can be around trauma in life

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