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What Would Jesus Eat?
Do Christian Weight Loss Programs Really Work?

The stock market may have its ups and downs, but the Christian weight loss industry appears to be enjoying a bull market uninterrupted since the 1950's.

Pray Your Weight Away?

My interest in the phenomenon stems partly from the coincidence that the man many credit with kicking off the boom is, like me, a Presbyterian minister. The Rev. Charlie Shedd's best selling "Pray Your Weight Away" (1957) and follow up titles like "Fat is in Your Head" and "Devotions for Dieters" set the pattern for scores of similar books and, indeed, the emergence of an entire sub-culture of workshops, support groups, e-courses, and church based weight loss programs that have proliferated steadily ever since.

My passion for the topic also stems from a conversation with my physician four years ago. He used the word "obese" when discussing what he perceived to be the "necessity" of my losing at least twenty pounds, as well as beginning a program of regular cardiovascular exercise. The "O" word proved to be the catalyst that led to changes in my lifestyle resulting in the long term loss of 25 pounds and a commitment to running. Last fall, I took home the first place prize for my age group in a 5K race.

I'll finish this article with the diet and exercise strategies that worked for me, but first a few more words about the so called "Christian diet."

"Slim is how God meant us to be," reasons Judy Halliday, founder of Thin Within, a "grace-oriented" approach to weight loss. Halliday claims to have organized over 170 support groups around the world. Her program attempts to show people "how to reconnect with God and achieve the weight that God meant for them to be."

Given that metabolism, bone and body size are significantly determined by DNA at birth, and that people are born in different sizes, shapes and colors, it should be clear that our notion of "ideal" body size is determined as much by prevailing fashion as by any notion of a divinely preordained target weight. Further, given that our individual differences are a delightful gift of God, as well as being a very large part of what it means to be human, how does Halliday arrive at the conclusion that "slim is how God meant us to be?"

Given their numbers, it appears to me that God loves large people just as much as the small.

The largest Christian diet plan of them all places the Bible front and center. The Tennessee-based Weigh Down Workshop is a 12-week Bible study offered in 35,000 churches around the world. More than a million people in 70 countries have signed up for the workshop.

Founded by Gwen Shamblin, a dietician, Weigh Down's premise is that fatness is a symptom of a faith crisis: overweight people have mistaken a spiritual emptiness for a hunger for food.

As Shamblin writes in "The Weigh Down Diet," the aim of her Christ-centered plan is to "learn how to replace head hunger with the will of God so that you transfer this urge for a pan of brownies to that of hungering and thirsting after righteousness."

Do spiritually oriented, biblically based weight loss programs offer anything that secular programs do not?

In much of the literature, the "Christian diet" turns out to be barely distinguishable from the "secular diet." Low-carb, low-fat, calorie conscious, fruits, fibers, vegetables and whole grains, you already know the routine. To some form of discipline about what you eat add regular exercise. At bottom it is hard to distinguish faith based programs from those that are thoroughly secular.

Of course, church based weight loss programs may have the advantage of a built in support group, and the added motivation of doing something for God. There may also be a disadvantage in that failure to achieve your weight loss goals in the context of a community of faith could involve feelings of guilt and shame that make your relationship to weight and body size even more problematic.

The history as well as the current trends in Christian weight loss have been studied carefully by by R. Marie Griffith, Associate Professor of Religion at Princeton University, whose recent book, "Born Again Bodies: Flesh and Spirit in American Christianity" (2004) impresses me as being scholarly, sympathetic and fair minded.

Griffith makes the point there is no solid research on whether religiously based weight loss programs are more effective than secular ones. She also argues that the Christian weight loss movement needs to be studied in greater depth if only because it addresses a problem with profound medical as well as theological dimensions.

Some Very Mixed Signals From Jesus.

As to the question, "What Would Jesus Eat?" The story of his life sends some very mixed signals as far a diet is concerned. First of all, he adopted a lifestyle that involved constant travelling, on foot, from village to village of his native Galilee and Judea. From the moment he began his ministry, he didn't have a home.

Therefore his diet was shaped entirely by those who offered him temporary hospitality. It was a function of his decision to be an itinerant preacher. That fact that this involved a significant amount of walking, probably guarantees that he was not obese. Needless to say, he was not tempted by calorie rich Big Macs, french fries, soda or ice cream.

Still, nowhere in the words of Jesus can you find a word of criticism or even comment about the first century diets of his contemporaries. We simply do not know whether he approved or disapproved of the food served to him by those gracious enough to welcome him into their homes.

Bottom line:

There are only two "secrets" to a successful diet:

Eat less; exercise more.

For most people it is not necessary to eat a great deal less. Just keep track of what you do eat and subtract one or two of the more calorie rich items that are part of your daily routine. In addition, add regular exercise. This can be a simple matter of a long walk three or four times a week. The combination of reducing the number of calories you take in, and burning a larger number of those calories through a slightly more active life is the one and only way to long term weight loss. If the added activity includes fast walking, running or other cardiovascular exercise, in addition to weight loss, you can expect your life expectancy to increase dramatically.

For further reading:

The Spirit Diet
A new plan combining spiritual practice with practical steps you can take toward a long and more fulfilling life ... and weight loss too!

Good Foods To Eat and Why
Our helpful food chart makes a good companion at the supermarket.

Running With The Wind: Long Distance Running As Spiritual Practice

Top selling weight loss books written from a Christian and/or spiritual perspective

Some of examples of these books follow. (I list these to illustrate the scope and variety of such books, not necessarily to recommend them.)


What Would Jesus Eat?
Don Colbert / Thomas Nelson / 1982
The Bible Cure for Weight Loss and Muscle Gain
Don Colbert, M.D. / Strang Communications / 2000
First Place: The Original Bible-Based Weight Loss Plan
Carole Lewis / Gospel Light / 2001
The Divine Diet: The Secret to Permanent Weight Loss
Carole Lewis with Jody Wilkinson, M.D. / Gospel Light / 2001
Spiritual Secrets to Weight Loss
Kara Davis / Strang Communications / 2002
Daily Word For Weight Loss
Colleen Zuck & Elaine Meyer / Penguin Putnam Inc. / 2002
Love Hunger Weight-Loss Workbook A 12-Week Life Plan for the Body, Mind, and Spirit
F. Minirth, P. Meier & R. Hemfelt / Thomas Nelson / W / 2004

Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and Executive Director of
  CrossCurrents.
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).  
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here.
God and Science (Hypertext Edition, 2005).
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion:
Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).

Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.  

For more information about Charles Henderson.