Do Christian Weight Loss Programs Really Work?
|What Would Jesus Eat?
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?
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.
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."
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.
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.
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
Do spiritually oriented, biblically
based weight loss programs offer anything that secular programs do not?
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
There are only
two "secrets" to a successful diet:
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
of examples of these books follow. (I list these to illustrate
the scope and variety of such books, not necessarily to recommend them.)
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
Lewis with Jody Wilkinson, M.D. / Gospel Light / 2001
Spiritual Secrets to
Kara Davis / Strang Communications / 2002
Daily Word For Weight
Colleen Zuck & Elaine Meyer / Penguin Putnam Inc. / 2002
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