Religiosity plays a beneficial role in several health domains, yet the research examining its implications in disordered eating is sparse . The importance of further understanding the influence of religiosity on disordered eating is demonstrated by both inconsistent findings and insufficient research in the current literature . We compared gender differences in religious versus non-religious individuals across several disordered eating attitudes and behaviours. Overall, the significant interactions between gender and religiosity suggests an interdependent effect of these variables on some components of disordered eating and internalization of societal appearance ideals. Specifically, the effect of religiosity in men versus in women was different in terms of body dissatisfaction, purging, restricting, and binge eating. Religious men reported higher levels of muscle building, negative attitudes towards obesity, excessive exercise, restricting, and purging than religious women. Among non-religious participants, results largely replicated previous results and indicated that, compared to men, women had higher levels of body dissatisfaction and binge eating as well as lower levels of muscle building.
Consistent with previous research , the current findings suggest that religiosity can have positive and negative relations with disordered eating attitudes and behaviours. It is possible that religious messages encouraging starvation and abominating gluttony may lead to increased levels of disordered eating ; our findings suggest that men may be more susceptible in engaging in disordered eating in order to follow religious rules than women. Considering that, to date, no study has examined the interaction of gender and religiosity across disordered eating components, more research is needed to further explore these conclusions. Future research should further explore gender differences across types and specific aspects of religiosity such as motivation to practice.
The effects of religiosity
Religiosity is related to disordered eating attitudes and behaviours regardless of gender. Individuals who reported both types of changes in eating habits driven by religiosity, vegetarianism/pescetarianism versus fasting, had similar levels of disordered eating. A narrative review revealed that religious fasting has several empirically supported health benefits in terms of body weight and glycemia, cardiometabolic risk markers, and oxidative stress parameters . Nonetheless, the number and severity of potential consequences associated with fasting should be considered when choosing a method for weight loss/control .
Individuals who reported using changes in eating habit for religious purposes as well as a method of weight control were at greater risk for engaging in disordered eating attitudes and behaviours, including purging, restricting, excessive exercise, negative attitudes toward obesity, binge eating, and muscle building, compared to non-religious and those who indicated not using religious fasting to lose/control weight. These findings support that, by its very nature, religiosity is not a risk factor of disordered eating. Instead, a subsample of religious individuals who are not completely genuine in their underlying intentions when engaging in religious fasting were more likely to engage in disordered eating .
Gender differences in disordered eating
As expected, non-religious women experienced higher levels of body dissatisfaction than non-religious men. Interestingly, among religious participants, there were no differences in body dissatisfaction of men and women. Interestingly, this effect was driven by the fact that religious males had significantly greater body dissatisfaction than non-religious males. Thus, although body dissatisfaction was high for all female participants, the effects of religious affiliation in male participants warrants further examination. Further, the current results support previous research and indicate that women internalize the thin ideal more than men, regardless of their religiosity. This is likely due to a combination of factors, including the depiction of women in the media and lower levels of self-esteem consistently reported by women [29, 30]. In support of this, overall results indicated that women, regardless of religious affiliation, reported experiencing greater pressure from the media to attain a thin figure. Although both men and women are exposed to media pressures influencing their idealized body types, females are generally more affected as they are constantly given several indications about objectification in the Western culture .
As expected, compared to women, both religious and non-religious men indicated greater internalization of the muscular ideal, including excessive exercise and muscle building as well as higher levels of negative attitudes toward obesity. Some studies suggest that women’s appraisal of having a higher BMI is more negative than it is for males ; however, when other factors are considered, such as experiencing substance use , associated disordered eating behaviours , and overall poor health , men also report significant levels of weight stigmatization.
Unexpectedly, in the current study, among religious participants, men reported higher levels of purging and restricting than females. Although some researchers have begun considering the implication of gender in disordered eating during COVID-19 , direct gender comparisons of the prevalence of distinct disordered eating components have not been made. One study found that, compared to men, more women reported dieting prior to COVID-19 as well as increased emotional eating, food intake, and eating in response to negative affect during COVID-19 . Thus, it is possible that the effects of COVID-19 were even more nuanced and differentially affected religious and non-religious individuals. In females, disordered eating attitudes and behaviours were high prior to the pandemic and remained high during the pandemic. Given that public religious activities were restricted, religious males may have turned to changes in eating (i.e., religious fasting) to participate in their religion. Future research could explore the interactive effects of gender and religiosity during health crises.
Differences in sociocultural expectations
This study explored a novel research direction and examined the differential effect of religiosity by gender across external pressures and internalized sociocultural ideals. Overall, for both women and men, there were no statistically significant differences in internalization of the thin or muscular ideal as a function of religiosity. Interestingly, although religious and non-religious women reported similar pressures from family, peers, and the media to attain a body aligned with societal expectations, religious men experienced greater pressure from their family and peers than non-religious men. Considering these significant findings, future replication studies should address the gaps in literature regarding the differential effect of religiosity in males and females in constructs related to disordered eating (i.e., external pressures and internalized sociocultural ideals).
Studies have shown that peers and family are important influences regarding a person’s relation with religion . Additionally, from a very young age, family members can influence their kins disordered eating through their own diet habits  and body dissatisfaction , and peers can influence disordered eating through discussions about aesthetic ideals  and social comparison. There is limited literature on the influence of family and peers on disordered eating in males and gender comparisons are quite rare. The current findings suggest family and peers can have an adverse effect on disordered eating, especially in religious men; however, more research should be conducted to future elucidate this relation.
Taken together, the effect of religiosity differs for adult men and women. Researchers have indicated that religiosity is associated with positive health outcomes when a person considers themselves religious; however, when an individual identifies as non-religious, religiosity is associated with poor health outcomes . The current results suggest that, for males, religiosity may be associated with behaviours associated with disordered eating.
The data was collected during the COVID-19 pandemic (January–April 2020), a period that has significantly impacted the general population’s eating habits . The non-probability, cross-sectional sampling does not allow inferences about causality. Given that our sample was not randomly selected, our results may not generalise to the broader population. Considering that this study did not address this, future research is needed to understand the driving factors underlying the gender differences in the relation between religiosity and disordered eating, such as motivation for faith.