Starving for God

An anorexic/bulimic finds nourishment and healing in her faith

“You will ultimately find that God has everything to do with weight control!” cries Gwen Shamblin in her book, The Weigh Down Diet. Twenty-five years ago, Shamblin began a Christian weight-loss group with friends that by the year 2000 had burgeoned into a church-based program that was offered in as many as thirty thousand churches across the globe and represents a portion of the multi-million dollar Christian diet-industry.

The Weigh Down Diet claims to slim down bodies and beef up relationships with God by helping people give up addictive food habits. In The Weigh Down Diet book, Shamblin welcomes readers to her program “that teaches you God’s rules for eating and shows you the futility of man-made rules.” The main thrust of her argument in this book and its sequel, Rise Above, is submission to God. Without submission, she claims, we lose focus on God and make food our idol.

Instead, she calls her readers to surrender to the natural hierarchical order of life. She shares that she “experienced being a child under authority of parents, a wife under the authority of a husband….” It was this principle of submission to the higher authority that she claims taught her to submit to God. Once she recognized the authority of God, she no longer idolized food and could call upon God to help her refrain from overeating.

Continuing the theme of submission, Shamblin uses metaphors of slavery and freedom. She proclaims that one does not have to “be a slave to leftovers” but has God’s permission to throw them away. She looks to the bible for images of this “dieting freedom” and promises: “Just like the Israelites, you will experience a deliverance from dieting and the bondage of food and diet programs.” (Our c all to Weigh Down Headquarters was never returned.)

Shamblin’s Weigh Down Diet is not the only place Christian dieters turn. The multi-million dollar industry began simply in 1957 with a book by a Presbyterian minister called Pray Your Weight Away. Since then, countless books have been published with titles such as More of Jesus, Less of Me (1976), Slim for Him (1978), and Health Begins in Him (1995). Alongside the books are workshops such Shamblin’s, The Light Weigh, and First Place.

First Place began in the early 1980’s, like Weigh Down, and continues today in over 12,000 churches with half a million members. Director Carole Lewis proudly proclaims that the bible-based program benefits both Protestants and Catholics, although it began and still has its headquarters in First Parish Baptist Church in Houston.

Lewis joined the first workshop in 1981 where she lost 20 pounds. The members of the church realized that “God was interested in this area of our life,” she recalls. The program began to grow and, since 1987, Lewis has been the director and enthusiastic supporter of First Place.

First Place strives to help people find balance among the spiritual, physical, mental and emotional aspects of life. Lewis worries that Weigh Down’s “whole program is about being thin, not about being healthy.” Additionally, where Weigh Down claims to be a diet for all people, including those with disordered eating, First Place strives to help people with disordered eating to find counseling. Nevertheless, Weigh Down and First Place are similar in their ideology of giving God or Jesus the “first place” in one’s life so as not to let the “sin” of overindulgence rule one’s life.

Marie Griffith, associate professor of religion at Princeton University, has lectured and written about her concerns regarding issues of Christian faith and food. Her most recent book, Born Again Bodies: Flesh and Spirit in American Christianity includes a historical analysis about the Christian diet industry. She says that in recent decades “body weight, more and more, indicated whether one was in the category of the saved or teetered into the realm of the damned.” Although some may find God’s presence helpful as they strive for a healthy lifestyle, the subtle message that God damns those who are overweight is not something any Christian should believe.

Kelly Raths, who has struggled with disordered eating and shares her story with BustedHalo readers on page one of this story, worries that Christian diet workshops carry unhealthy undertones. She worries that the message of Christian dieting can lead to dangerous questions: “Is there the thought that you will get closer to God as you lose weight? That God loves fit and healthy people more than God loves fat people?”

She recalls the years she spent struggling with food. “You know, in my prayer life, I don’t think I ever once heard God comment on my weight. God would comment on the amount of hate I was pumping into myself but God was never telling me ‘Oh Kelly, just gain these pounds, or Oh Kelly, just lose this.’ It was always ‘Just love yourself, Know that you are loved.'” And, perhaps, that is the most important message for anyone to hear.