‘Tis the season for family, faith, fellowship—and fat

Frustrated American dieters seek spiritual support

As you gather round the family table to give thanks, you’ll consume anywhere from 2000 to 7000 calories as you graze on turkey, stuffing and candied veggies galore. Certainly not everyone is so fortunate to have a horn of plenty this time of year, but the majority of Americans will eat their fill… and then some.

As we gobble gobble, a growing number of groups caution us God might not approve of that second piece of pie. Yes, that’s right. The omnipresent world of wonder diets and slim-down regimes now has a foothold in the world of the omnipotent.

I wrote this piece for USA Today but thought that it might have some resonance with young adult spiritual seekers as well. Post your thoughts below… does God care what size you are? Should religions be getting into the weight loss business?

Faith-based diets
Faith-based weight loss groups have been a quietly growing presence for more than three decades. Organizations such as First Place 4 Health, a Texas-based group with chapters in more than 12,000 churches nationwide, and the Weigh Down Workshop, which offers in-person and online Bible-based weight-loss plans, boast that participants have lost the pounds (and kept them off) by placing more faith in God, and less in Ben & Jerry’s.

Previously the realm of fundamentalists, bringing a higher power into dieting has gone mainstream. Today it’s not only Christians who see fat as a spiritual issue. According to Buddhist teachings—the latest religion to join the fray of pop-faith-based dieting—it’s all about moderation and mindfulness.

In a country in which two-thirds of Americans are overweight and nearly a third are obese, it’s no surprise that in addition to tapping Jenny Craig or Robert Atkins, people are turning to the real Big Guy. The pounds are piling up, and shedding them is fraught with problems: Approximately half of women and one-third of men in the U.S. are on a diet at any given moment, and within a year, most people regain two-thirds of their lost weight.

For a believer, fear of offending your creator is a powerful force in overcoming the urge to make the short-sighted choice of a burger and fries instead of that leafy salad with light dressing.

Enter religion—the ultimate trump card of many behavior modification programs. For a believer, fear of offending your creator is a powerful force in overcoming the urge to make the short-sighted choice of a burger and fries instead of that leafy salad with light dressing. To underscore the consequences of overeating, the Weigh Down Workshop—one of the most hard-line Christian diet groups—tells participants that God will destroy those who abuse their bodies by overeating. Our bodies are God’s temples and, quoting 1 Corinthians 3:17, the Weight Down Workshops materials warn: "If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him; for God’s temple is sacred, and you are that temple."

Does God care what size you are?
Adding a helping of spirituality to your diet can give you the focus to get slim, but before we send two-thirds of America to be destroyed for eternity, let’s take a step back: While the sacred texts of all major religions advocate balance, God doesn’t really care what size you are.

Most major religions make suggestions about the proper balance between the necessity of eating and the dangers of overindulgence: According to the Koran, the Prophet Mohammed tells his followers to "eat of the good things we have provided for your sustenance, but commit no excess therein, lest my wrath should justly descend on you." Muslims are instructed to leave one-third of their stomachs empty after finishing a meal, to allow room for air.

In the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament for Christians, food is central to brokering deals, and in the New Testament, Jesus often showed that he respected the lowest members of society by sharing a meal with them. But to overeat or to be too preoccupied with obtaining the best and most plentiful food might lead you to idolatry, warns St. Paul in Philippians 3:19 ("Whose end is destruction, whose God is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame, who mind earthly things"), so everything in moderation.

Gluttony—one of the Seven Deadly Sins dating back to the 6th century—was associated with an obsession with food rather than God. But throughout the Middle Ages, girth and gluttony were separate. As the Renaissance gave way to the Industrial Revolution, a fat body signaled prosperity. Soon, however, medical wisdom took hold, and plus-sizes became a negative. Once body size became the stamp of gluttony, it became the only of the Seven Deadly Sins always on display. Your body size is a signal to the world of how much you eat.

But is it really a sin to be pear-shaped? There is little theological support for the idea that one body type is holier than another. Modern interpretations of ancient texts argue that food and bodies are used as metaphors for larger spiritual issues. "It’s not the size of the body that’s the problem; it’s the fixation on food. And a fixation on thinness and dieting is just as serious of a problem theologically as a fixation with overeating," says R. Marie Griffith, professor of religion at Princeton University and author of “Born Again Bodies: Flesh and Spirit in American Christianity.”

Plus-sized Americans have enough problems without worrying about whether their cellulite is a religious transgression as well. Such psychological pressures could lead to unhealthy measures. "People will probably feel best about the process if they can focus on positive God-given desires and things that they want, rather than focusing on negatives, guilt, and things that they fear or ‘should’ do to avoid being punished by God," says Julie Exline, associate professor of psychology at Case Western Reserve University.

Mindful eating

Mindful eating seminars teach participants to break the “stress—food—stress” chain and avoid making emotional decisions about food.

And this is where Buddhist mindfulness techniques seem to have the answer for frustrated dieters in search of spiritual support. Jean Kristeller, professor of psychology at Indiana State University and co-founder of The Center for Mindful Eating, has developed a program that incorporates meditation, forgiveness and inner-searching exercises into the eating process. Participants are taught to do "mini-meditations" several times a day, and, before eating, to consider the difference between actual hunger and a signal of anxiety, boredom, or other psychological trigger. Funded by the National Institutes of Health, Kristeller’s studies have had promising results: Participants reported fewer eating binges, and a greater sense of control over their eating and their life circumstances.

Mindful eating seminars teach participants to break the "stress—food—stress" chain and avoid making emotional decisions about food. Kim Book, a participant in a Duke University Integrative Medicine mindfulness program, said this was a breakthrough idea for her. Later in the week, instead of rewarding herself after a bad day with a milkshake, "an emotional decision about eating that had nothing to do with hunger or nutrition," Book took a few moments to meditate. "Mindfulness gives you the space and time to make those wiser decisions."

Contemplative practices are part of every major religious tradition, and plenty of similarities exist between mindful eating meditation programs and the prayer programs that Christian weight-loss groups suggest. Both highlight the difference between actually being hungry and wanting food to fill some other void. But these new meditation programs may be better suited for the growing group of "spiritual-not-religious" Americans; while Jesus is invoked at most Christian weight-loss seminars, Buddha doesn’t make an appearance at mindfulness workshops.

Indeed, some of the newer Christian weight-loss groups are preaching moderation in language that even spiritual seekers might find appealing: "God wants balance, and it’s more than the size that you are. The key to the program is being really loving," says Barb Swanson, co-founder of BABES (Beautiful, Accountable Babes Exercising Sensibly), a women’s faith and diet group with chapters in more than 20 cities. "We’re not into sin and judgment. That’d make them afraid to come. These women already feel bad enough about themselves."

God may not care whether you’re a size 6 or a 16, but contemplation, prayer and forgiveness can still serve as food for the dieter’s soul. As you head to the table this Thanksgiving, be mindful of your choices—and take a pass on the extra helpings of fire-and-brimstone with your pie.

This piece originally appeared in USA Today. Dr. Whelan received research support for this article from the Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellowship in science and religion.

Listen to Dr. Christine Whelan’s interview on this topic on Iowa Public Radio here.