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Feed the soul, trim the fat

Special to The Times

When the First Place Christian weight-loss program came to his church in 1998, Chino computer programmer Mark Gutierrez -- who weighed 310 at the time -- was skeptical. The 44-year-old father of two had tried numerous high-profile weight-loss programs, starting as far back as age 13.

“I had lost weight many times, but always put it back on and more,” he says.

Fear and doubt, he says, delayed him from committing to the program for a year. But once he signed on, in early 1999, he met with rapid success -- dropping 120 pounds in the first 12 months.

The program’s spiritual component made all the difference to him.

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“You draw your encouragement and strength from God and Bible study, from prayer and the prayers of others in the room with you,” he says of the First Place program.

Religious diet and weight-loss programs are booming, fueled by spiritual leaders’ heightened attention to the problem of obesity and its medical fallout. They are delivering a compelling message to the faithful: God cares about physical health.

The movement, overwhelmingly Christian, mirrors trends in alternative health and the secular diet industry, with their emphasis on natural, nonprocessed foods, and vitamin and herbal supplements.

There are no solid statistics on how many people are now turning to God and his mouthpieces for guidance on trimming down and getting fit, but a growing trend is unmistakable.

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First Place, founded in Houston in 1981, now boasts half a million members in every state and dozens of countries. The Chicago-based Thin Within, founded in the late 1970s, has more than a hundred groups in the U.S., Britain and Canada.

The Tennessee-based Weigh Down Workshop, launched in 1986, now claims a million followers in more than 30,000 groups worldwide.

And recent years have seen a swelling number of programs, books and events dispensing faith-based advice on diet and fitness.

Two books -- “The Maker’s Diet” by Jordan S. Rubin and “Body by God” by Dr. Ben Lerner -- have made religious and secular bestseller lists in recent years, and the latter has inspired hundreds of Body by God makeover challenges across the country.

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Today, even televangelist Pat Robertson touts his own “age-defying” protein shake and “weight-loss challenge” on his Christian Broadcasting Network.

As the movement swells, some weight-loss experts are questioning whether these programs and the advice they proffer are effective.

“There are lots of movements and books and programs that developed a head of steam with regard to weight loss,” says Kelly Brownell, director of the Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorders. “People try them, they have the same old results that every other program did

Yet experts also note that faith-based diets incorporate several elements that may enhance their effectiveness -- notably, a heavy emphasis on group support and, like Alcoholics Anonymous, deference to a higher power.

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Ancient beginnings

Unlike other dietary fads, Bible-based eating advice has a more than 2,000-year-old history. The Old and New Testaments have long served as a source of dietary advice, inspiring the faithful of different religions to forgo meat during Lent, for example, or eschew specific foods (such as shellfish or pork) for a lifetime.

But the current trend in Christian weight-loss books and programs dates only from the last two generations. Scholars say it was kicked off by the 1957 book “Pray Your Weight Away,” in which Presbyterian minister Charles Shedd linked obesity to sinfulness, advocating prayer as the path to thinness. (He claimed it helped him lose 100 pounds.)

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Shedd created a new market. By the ‘70s, a glut of personal accounts of Christian faith-based weight loss had been published, with titles such as “Slim for Him,” “Help Lord -- The Devil Wants Me Fat!” and “More of Jesus, Less of Me.”

Then, in the late ‘70s and through the ‘80s, came the birth of church-based group programs such as First Place and Thin Within.

The effect was questionable, but the need clearly great. In 1998, Purdue University sociologist Kenneth F. Ferraro published an article in the Review of Religious Research reporting that compared with people who had no religious affiliation, religious people were significantly heavier -- with Baptists the heaviest of them all.

That news, said Don Colbert, a Florida-based doctor, inspired a renewed cycle of faith-based programs and books, including his own 2002 book, “What Would Jesus Eat?”

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The current generation of Christian-inspired health media is decidedly different from its homegrown forebears. The products are glossy and corporate. The programs run the gamut, including those that advocate simply tuning in to God-given physical cues that signify hunger and fullness to avoid overeating -- with few or no restrictions on what to eat -- and those that go beyond dietary and fitness advice into tips on time management, improving marital relationships and more.

“It’s not just about diet, it’s about bringing the body, soul and spirit together,” says Linda Hill, a spokesperson for the North Carolina-based Hallelujah Acres, a Christian ministry that advocates a diet of raw, unprocessed, plant-based foods.

Hallelujah Acres invokes Genesis 1:29 -- “I have given you every herb that yields seed which is on the face of all the earth, and every tree whose fruit yields seeds; to you it shall be for food” -- as divine guidance for its diet.

Other Christian diet gurus interpret the Bible more liberally. Colbert’s “What Would Jesus Eat?” advocates replacing “dead, man-made” foods with “living” foods and combs the Bible for evidence of what biblical characters were likely to have eaten: grapes, figs, pomegranates, lentils and beans, to name a few. His new book, “Living in Divine Health” (co-authored with his wife) pairs New Testament text with diet advice, including “righteous recipes” and “Bible beverages.”

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In the 2003 book “Body by God” -- fast becoming an international fitness phenomenon as thousands sign-up for workshops based on its advice -- author Lerner urges readers to opt for “foods by God” (vegetables, grains, water) over “foods by man” (soda, processed and fried foods).

Lerner doesn’t focus solely on food. He compels readers to take up an exercise plan that combines aerobic workouts with weight training, and he advocates chiropractic care.

He also stresses the importance of creating peace in daily life and managing time better (“time by God” is the phrase he favors) to improve physical and mental health and relationships.

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Balance in everyday life

Such a broader lifestyle approach is widespread in today’s Christian wellness arena. “Pathway to Success,” one of nine books published by First Place, includes advice on finding quiet time, building a healthy body image and even buying the right shoes. It emphasizes “balance in the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual areas of life,” asking followers to analyze how emotions affect what they eat and to reflect on how God demonstrates grace in their lives.

What all of these programs share is the unification of religion and health, a “crucial arena that we ought to be thinking about,” said R. Marie Griffith, a Princeton University associate religion professor and author of “Born Again Bodies: Flesh and Spirit in American Christianity.”

“God cares just as much about our bodies and our physical health as he does about our souls,” Griffith says.

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But there are some inherent conflicts in looking to God, the Bible and a church community for dietary guidance. For one thing, the Bible was written for a different place and time, says Judith Stern, professor of nutrition and internal medicine at UC Davis.

“Two thousand years ago, people were very active, and the main problem was starvation,” not obesity, she says. A Bible written for today’s American might counsel more restraint with the fatted calf.

Another conflict is that the church’s attitude toward eating is not consistently one of moderation and temperance. Abundant food is a prominent feature of Christmas and Easter celebrations. And most Christians are familiar with post-sermon coffee-and-doughnut hours, church-sponsored potlucks and horn-o-plenty picnics and luncheons.

Food, in fact, is a sort of rare vice for many Christians.

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“The Bible teaches us Christians shouldn’t drink in excess, they shouldn’t go out and party, they shouldn’t commit fornication and adultery, and they shouldn’t smoke,” Colbert says. “But by golly, they’re going to eat anything they want to.”

Yet adherents of faith-based diets argue that a fit, healthy body is the best tool with which to do God’s work on earth.

“We are going to be far less effective as ambassadors of God if we are just as fat and dying of the exact same diseases as society at large,” says Bruce Friedrich, a founder of the Society of Ethical and Religious Vegetarians (and a director with the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals).

The body is also, according to Christian teachings, a temple, the earthly home of the Holy Spirit -- even more reason to keep it in tiptop physical shape, says fitness trainer Victoria Johnson, author of 2002’s “Body Revival: Lose Weight, Feel Great and Pump up Your Faith.”

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But however divinely inspired some Christian diet and wellness programs may be, critics say it’s hard to believe that some programs haven’t been driven -- on some level -- by the marketing opportunities offered by a multi-million dollar industry.

Johnson had been leading classes, training trainers and producing secular workout videos for years when she was approached by a publisher to write a fitness book incorporating her spiritual beliefs. “Body Revival” was one of her first steps toward incorporating a spiritual message into her fitness programs.

She’s now spreading gospel-based workouts in several continents (her programs have been taught in Nigeria, Pakistan and Germany, among other countries) and has sold more than 1.5 million fitness DVDs and CDs, many with a spiritual angle.

She also markets videos and a line of vitamins and supplements -- a move that other faith-based diet and fitness leaders have made too.

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Colbert offers more than 50 different supplements, including “allergy formula,” melatonin and vitamin C under the brand name Divine Health.

The Maker’s Diet offers CDs, DVDs, a dining-out pocket guide and more than a dozen pricey herbal and vitamin supplements on its website.

Hallelujah Dieters can buy Hallelujah Acres carpet cleaner and furniture polish along with their Hallelujah Acres BarleyMax, a patented blend of raw barley and alfalfa.

Body by God’s 50 products include cookbooks, videos, clothing and such supplements as “memory enhancer and brain connector” and Arthiplex, an “arthritis relief and joint rebuilder” formula -- all of which, combined with book sales and appearances, have helped make Lerner a millionaire.

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Principally, however, Christian diet leaders are selling the promise that with prayer and perseverance, the faithful can become slimmer and healthier.

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An emphasis on support

At the New Hope Christian Fellowship church in Vacaville, the Tuesday night First Place meeting feels much like a group therapy session. First, the women (there are no men in the group at the moment) step on the scales in the small room adjacent the church’s sanctuary, marking their weight in workbooks.

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They then gather in a circle of chairs by the altar and one by one share personal struggles with food and family, laughter and tears, bible passages and prayers, and kitchen-table wisdom on how to resist the temptation to overeat.

The group is shedding pounds slowly, and many admit the process is more difficult than they anticipated.

“I feel defeated most of the time,” admits Mary, a middle-age woman with lively blond hair.

Group leader Shari Mejia, an equipment inspector at the Shell oil refinery in Martinez, likens the process to addiction treatment.

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“It’s about asking God for surrender from food, like an alcoholic,” says Mejia, who has so far lost 11 pounds. “It’s hard,” she adds, “but God keeps giving me the tools.”

Does God deliver?

To date, there have been no rigorous scientific evaluations of Christian-based weight loss programs, so their effectiveness is impossible to quantify. Christian-themed diet plans are hardly alone in that. Most showcase success stories -- such as Mark Gutierrez’s -- as evidence that they work.

But experts point out that every diet has its Gutierrez: What’s important is the ratio of successes to failures and the durability of those successes.

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To their credit, many of the books and programs embrace elements of tested formulas of long-running, well-regarded programs such as Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig.

They emphasize social support, incorporate exercise, promote balanced diets and aim to give people the means to stick to their healthy habits long after they leave the program.

And, of course, they invoke a higher power -- a method employed for more than 70 years by members of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Although the effectiveness of AA’s program is contested by some experts, studies have shown that broadly speaking, heightened spirituality is a key factor to help keep addicts from relapsing.

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Faith in changing behavior

Finding religion is also key in changing behavior among criminals, says Cheri Nolan, senior policy advisor at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. It’s the second most important factor (after growing older) in deterring former prisoners from committing new crimes.

Social support is also key in preventing criminal and substance abuse relapses, Nolan says -- and finding faith and a supportive community often go hand in hand.

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Carrying the logic through, faith communities might seem like an ideal setting for diet and fitness programs.

In fact, studies show people, especially women, who stay in a supportive group do better in diet programs over time than people who drop out of groups or go it alone.

And, by bringing weight loss programs into faith communities, “you’re reaching people at a place they’re already going to,” says Gail Woodward-Lopez, associate director of the Center for Weight and Health at UC Berkeley.

Yet faith and social interaction don’t necessarily provide a formula for success.

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For one thing, says Yale’s Brownell, “just because you put people together in a room doesn’t mean you’re getting social support because they could end up feeling castigated or criticized or made to feel like a failure in one way or another.”

Indeed, Princeton’s Griffith, who has studied the Weigh Down Diet in-depth, is concerned that such programs may place unrealistic expectations on followers.

“A lot of these programs are very concerned with the way Christian women look,” she says. “They establish a model of Christian femininity that is very hard to achieve and doesn’t look that different from a typical Hollywood image.”

Faith-based dieters -- often women -- who put lost pounds back on after a few years, or who fail to lose any or enough weight at all, may end up facing a spiritual crisis on top of everything.

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“If suddenly you think God wants you to be thin, then what happens if you fail?” Griffith says. “It only makes sense that they would feel that they’ve also failed God.”

Failure is likely. High rebound rates characterize all forms of dieting with roughly 95% of dieters regaining lost pounds over time. Dieters in faith-based programs are unlikely to prove an exception to the rule, experts say.

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Defying the odds

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Gutierrez has dealt with rebound firsthand: Not too long after he lost 120 pounds, he put almost half of it back on.

But with God’s guidance, he says, he got back on track a couple of years ago and is fit and trim once again.

He aims on keeping it that way, no matter what the stats may say. “I didn’t just lose the weight and move on and the struggle was over,” he says. “It’s a daily thing.”

He now leads the First Place program at his church in Chino. In January, he ran his first marathon in Houston with a group of First Place leaders from around the country. He ran the Los Angeles marathon in March and says he’s now aiming to qualify for the Boston marathon by age 50. First Place taught him to incorporate exercise into his daily life, Gutierrez says, and to draw continued strength and guidance from the Bible.

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These days, Corinthians 9:24 keeps him going: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it.”

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Inspired foods

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Several products taking their recipes from biblical verse and the natural flora of the Holy Land have hit health food stores in recent years:

* Bible Bars, made by Orlando, Fla.-based Logia Foods, contain the seven foods described in a passage from Deuteronomy: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olive oil and honey.

* Scripture Bars, also inspired by Scripture and made by Logia, include the Bar of Judah (rolled oats, honey raisins and nuts); King David’s Treat (sunflower and pumpkin seeds, cranberries and almonds); and the Good Shepherd Bar (sesame seeds, raisins, peanuts, honey, sunflower seeds).

* Galilee Splendor’s Bible Bread is actually a cracker -- or an “unleavened crisp bread” -- that comes in flavors such as Five Whole Grains and Pure Honey.

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* New York City-based Mount of Olives Treasures makes teas “formulated with ancient herbs” found on the site where Jesus lectured his disciples, including pomegranate leaves, hyssop, and olive and grape leaves.

* The Food for Life Baking Co.'s Ezekiel sprouted grain pasta, bread, cereal and tortillas are assembled from ingredients in Ezekiel 4:9: “Take wheat and barley, beans and lentils, millet and spelt, and put them into a single vessel, and make bread of them.” The Corona, Calif.-based company consulted Genesis 1:29 for its Genesis sprouted grain bread and English muffins.

-- Elena Conis

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Strictures based on Scriptures

An array of diet books claim inspiration from God and the Bible on what and how, to eat.

Here’s a sampling of tips:

* “God did not put chocolate or lasagna or real blue cheese dressing on earth to torture us, but rather for our enjoyment. However, He wants us to learn how to rise above the magnetic pull of the refrigerator so that food does not consume our lives!”

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Gwen Shamblin, “The Weigh Down Diet”

* “Let me assure you, Jesus did not eat processed foods, too much sugar, or food additives. What He did eat was a diet based upon biblical principles that were focused on health and wholeness for the physical body. I am 100 percent convinced that if dietary laws of the Bible were being issued by God today, there would be a ‘thou shalt not’ attached to processed foods high in sugar, hydrogenated fat, salt, or additives.”

Don Colbert, M.D., “What Would Jesus Eat?”

* “Food by God and all the vitamins, minerals, and other elements it contains are put together by the intelligence of God. Food by God is smart food. When you eat Food by God, such as an apple or a carrot, it knows what to do inside the Body by God, and the intelligent Body by God knows what to do with it.”

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Dr. Ben Lerner, “Body by God”

* “Grapes were the first crop Noah planted after the flood (Gen. 9:20). They were made into wine and vinegar or eaten fresh or dried. We now know that grapes fight tooth decay, stop viruses in their tracks, and are rich in other ingredients that many researchers believe may lower risk of cancer.”

Jordan S. Rubin, “The Maker’s Diet”

* “We have been trying to feed our hurting, longing hearts with physical food. We have also learned to love food. Therefore, the solution is as follows:

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1. Relearn how to feed the stomach only when it is truly hungry.

2. Relearn how to feed or nourish the longing human soul with a relationship with God.”

Gwen Shamblin, “The Weigh Down Diet”

* "[The] Genesis 1:29 diet of raw, living fruits and vegetables, seeds and nuts, is what gave God’s human creation the ability to live that next 1,700 years after creation, to an average age of 912 years, without a single recorded incidence of sickness. But then, after the flood, man began to eat meat and cook his food, and the slow degeneration of the cells that comprised the physical bodies of mankind began in earnest.”

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George Malkmus (with Peter and Stowe Shockey), “The Hallelujah Diet”

* “God’s body cannot be tricked; It must be looked on in awe. Diets that restrict foods or use only one kind of food category, such as a protein-only diet, may trick the body into change in the short term. However, they never work in the long term. Eliminating an entire food group cannot be healthy because God would not have placed those foods on the face of the earth in the first place if they were not to be eaten.”

Dr. Ben Lerner, “Body by God”

* “Ask yourself these two key questions about everything you eat today:

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1. Why do I eat this?

2. Would Jesus eat this?”

Don Colbert, M.D., “What Would Jesus Eat?”

* “The Bible implies a strong influence of butter and honey on brain function. ‘Curds [butter] and honey He shall eat, that He may know to refuse the evil and choose the good” (Isa. 7:15).’ The brain is made of mostly fat (which butter provides) and it runs on glucose (of which honey is an excellent source).”

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Jordan S. Rubin, “The Maker’s Diet”

* “Eating Food by Man on a regular basis is like going to your place of worship every day and tossing garbage and chemicals all over the altar of God’s house. That’s not right.”

Dr. Ben Lerner, “Body by God”


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