“Does God really care if we gained ten pounds over the holidays? Yes!” announces The Dieter’s Prayer Book.
“If you’ve struggled with obesity all of your life, you may not even be able to imagine yourself free of the bondage of unwanted fat. But God can,” promises The Bible Cure for Weight Loss and Muscle Gain.
As part of the Templeton-Cambridge Fellowship to study the intersection of science and religion, I explored the world of religious diet books. Surprised that such books exist? So are many Catholics, but religious weight-loss and health initiatives that began among evangelical Christians are spreading to other denominations—and other faiths—as Americans continue to put on the pounds.
Worshipping the God of Food?
Gwen Shamblin, author of the Weigh Down Diet, and the grand dame of the Christian weight loss movement since the 1980s, says obesity wounds more than your body—it destroys your soul.
“We’re worshipping the false god of food,” Shamblin says in her online video guide for weight loss. “We have worshiped food and elevated it to a place of unprecedented power in our lives… Our hearts have been devoted to figuring out what the latest fad diet will or will not let us eat” and that has distracted us from a healthy relationship with our creator, she says. Her solution? Pray before you eat so you consume less, and the pounds will come off.
Other religious diet authors claim that eating a specific, fiber-rich, organic diet will bring you closer to God and to a healthy weight. Jordan Rubin, author of The Maker’s Diet, says dozens of doctors were unable to reverse his Crohn’s disease, but when he turned to God, prayer and the basic foods that Jesus would have eaten 2000 years ago, he was cured.
Big Belly = Little Faith?
Most Christian diet books argue that by exerting individual self-control—with the help of prayer and God’s grace—you can lose weight. The underlying message is that if you are heavy you are failing in some way, and not as faithful or devoted to God as you could be.
But weight loss isn’t that simple. Genetic research has repeatedly shown that somewhere between 60% and 80% of the difference in people’s weight can be explained by genetics. What’s more, recent brain chemistry research suggests that some people are simply wired to be hungrier than others.
Obesity is considered to be a secular transgression—studies have shown that we think heavier people are less intelligent, lazy and have less self-control—but increasingly, in religious communities, being heavy is considered a sign of weak faith.
And this is something we as young-adult Catholics need help combat.
Do you make fun of obese people? Do you think you are superior to someone who is overweight?
Or is this even more personal for you: Are you concerned that people will think less of you because of your body size?
As we’ve talked about in previous columns, body image is a very personal and fraught topic. Adding the extra concern that we’ve got to be a certain weight to receive the love and approval of God makes things even more complicated.
Catholic Weight Loss?
I’m encouraged that as Catholic priests and bishops have started to get involved in health and weight-loss initiatives, they are tackling this subject, not from an individual “does God love me?” perspective, but from a social justice angle.
In West Virginia, Bishop Michael Bransfield has created a “Church that Heals” wellness initiative. In a 2006 pastoral letter, he notes that West Virginia ranks #3 in obesity and #4 in diabetes, and that “behind poor health behaviors we often find social injustice and inadequate social services and insufficient economic opportunities… School and church lunches and refreshments may feature food with low nutritional value and contribute further to the problems with diet and obesity in our state. The well-known association of poverty, health and education does not spring from the spirit of our people but from a culture for which we are all responsible.”
While most other Christian weight-loss plans focus on self-control via a partnership with God, Bishop Bransfield’s campaign in West Virginia focuses on the economic injustices, not a lack of individual willpower.
“It would be terrific if a program like this got off the ground,” says R. Marie Griffith, the Princeton professor and author of Born Again Bodies, a book about the history of Christian diet movements. “There’s a danger of narcissism in these other groups: Why is the concern always about me and my body and my self-discipline, rather than saying that other people—in the developing world, or in rural parts of our own country—are in dire straits and need help learning about food and need help affording healthy food to eat a balanced diet?”
As young Catholics, we are called to help others. Here’s my proposal for some Catholic Weight Loss: Eat less, save up the money you’d otherwise have spent on food and donate it to a Catholic charity. Everyone wins.
Have you ever read a religious diet book or struggled with body image issues and faith? Share your thoughts with me—anonymously, if you’d like—at firstname.lastname@example.org.