Taking a Closer Look at Faith-Based Diets
The recent controversy surrounding the “To the Fatty Running on the Westview Track” letter brought into sharp relief the ways in which many people believe you can tell almost anything about a person just by knowing their body size—their food choices, exercise habits, their innermost thoughts, and, according to some faith-based diet plans, even how moral they are.
By making the way someone looks a test of their faith, by encouraging the judgment of people’s morality based on their body size, and by linking dieting success with success in one’s religious practice, everyone involved is done a disservice. How? Let’s start by looking a little more deeply into four popular faith-based diets.
A program created by Steve Reynolds, head pastor of Capital Baptist Church in Virginia, Bod4God pits teams of participants against one another in a 12-week weight loss challenge. According to Reynolds, the program doesn’t just help with health, it also helps people to keep the first commandment (You shall have no other gods before me) because fat Christians may be breaking that commandment by “unwittingly valuing food over their faith.”
2. The Hallelujah Diet
The Hallelujah Diet is an incredibly strict vegan diet based, according to creators Reverend George Malkmus and his wife, Rhonda, on Genesis 1:29: “And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat [food].”
Eighty-five percent of the diet should be composed of raw, uncooked, and unprocessed plant-based food with cooked, plant-based food allowed to round out the other 15%. While people welcome to choose to a vegan diet, suggesting that choosing otherwise goes against God and the Bible can pressure people for whom this might not be the best diet (either because of gastrointestinal issues, the inability to get enough protein etc.) Assigning value to foods (good/bad, clean/unclean etc.) is often one of the first steps on the path to disordered eating and eating disorders.
Oh, and did I mention supplements costing upwards of $2,000 a year, created and sold by the Rev. Malkmus himself? Malkmus states “We can literally control whether we are going to be sick or not and how long we are going to live by simply choosing how we live our lives…the world’s way or God’s way!”
3. The Maker’s Diet aka The Bible Diet
This diet was created by Jordan Rubin, a motivational speaker who says that the diet is a “40-day health experience that will change your life forever.” It’s based on a group of Bible verses, with specific attention to those in which certain foods are deemed “unclean,” like shellfish and pork.
The diet suggests eating a majority of fruits and vegetables, but also allows for meat from wild animals, fish, and raw, unpasteurized dairy, and a lot of supplements that are conveniently sold on Rubin’s website. Rubin says he learned about the diet from “a gentleman—I call him an eccentric nutritionist, [because] he’s not a licensed nutritionist.”
That brings us to another issue. In many cases religious leaders like Rubin use their (literal) bully pulpits to give people strict eating rules based on advice written in a book over 3,000 years ago by people who were not nutritionists. And the religious leaders are making a mighty profit doing it.
They suggest people of faith have no right to ask for proof that these diets work, or at the very least that they won’t hurt them in the long term. And if people don’t lose weight, or they gain it back (like almost everyone on every diet ever studied long-term) they aren’t just seen as dieting failures, they are seen as failures in their faith.
4. The Daniel Plan
The Daniel Plan was written by megachurch pastor Rick Warren in conjunction with Dr. Mark Hyman (who has written six other books about six other weight loss plans) and brain specialist Dr. Daniel Amen, a psychiatrist specializing in brain disorders. The website starts with the admonition “START GLORIFYING GOD WITH YOUR BODY” and includes a devotional called “Put down the chocolate and pick up the bible.” The choice to follow a diet that is based in one’s faith is not the issue here—people are free to believe whatever they want and to express those beliefs in any way that works for them. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any issues here.
First, most of the diets were created by people whose training is in spiritual guidance, not in health or nutrition. Victoria Shanta-Retelny, RD, a dietitian at Northwestern Memorial Hospital’s Wellness Institute in Chicago, told Web MD “The basic premise of The Maker’s Diet… begs skepticism. The plan is gimmicky as it focuses on fasting one day per week, which I don’t recommend as a general guideline because we are not sure [what] a person’s specific health concerns are, such as diabetes.”
Second, all of these diets promise weight loss they can’t back up with evidence. Research, like Mann and Tomiyama 2007, shows that almost anyone can lose weight short term on almost any diet, and that almost everyone gains it back long term. There is no research suggesting that these diets will do any better, because there is no research about them at all.
Finally suggesting, as Malkmus does, that “we can literally control whether we are going to be sick or not” ignores the reality that health is demonstrably not entirely within our control—people who smoke like chimneys and drink like fish die in their nineties, while people who run marathons die of heart attacks in their forties—and sets up a blame-the-victim mentality when it comes to people who have or develop health issues.
Beyond that, the suggestion that these diets will lead to a thin body makes body size a yardstick to measure “successful” religious practice. What affect might this have on people’s faith? Reynolds suggests that we can tell that fat people are putting food before faith, ignoring genetics, medications, the effect of dieting on raising one’s average body size, and other health conditions that cause weight gain.
The diet industry has made this profitable, to the tune of over $60 Billion a year, by successfully claiming credit for the first half of the biological response (in which the clients lose weight), and blaming their clients for the second part (where they gain the weight back.)
Putting someone’s morality, or “proper” execution of their faith into the mix doubles down on this—making the body not just (mistakenly) a proxy for health, but also a proxy for morality, and being a “good” person of faith, and “glorifying God.”
This can add to the stigma and oppression faced by people of size who are also people of faith. Encouraging a congregation to believe that a fat body shows anything from a lack of faith to breaking sacred commandments can leave people of size who are also people of faith to deal with the War on Obesity from their government and a war waged on them by their churches as well.
Equating thin bodies with “godliness” leaves me with the question: WWJBS (Who Would Jesus Body Shame?) It’s not news that religions have been influenced by the prejudices of their time—unfortunately, neither is the use of the concept of faith for profit. I think at best this idea is an example of the tremendous size prejudice of our time working its way into religion, and at worst it’s an example of using the combination of faith and dieting to turn a profit.
Happily, people are welcome to keep their faith in religion while ditching their faith in those who would use it for prejudice and profit.