Should healthy living be a spiritual discipline?

An essay at RELEVANT yesterday made some good points: first, that “the obesity battle isn’t an individual responsibility; it’s a community effort,” and, second, that the church can (and should) play a role in shaping America’s food culture for the better. Both of these are very, very true.

this book gives a great history of American Christian diet books

But to my mind, the rest of the essay exemplified a shallowness of thinking about food and eating that has surfaced again and again in the 100+ years since Christians first began linking healthy diets with spiritual health. The typical logic goes like this:

The Bible teaches that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit.

Fat and/or unhealthy bodies are not pleasing temples.

Therefore to be a pleasing temple for the Holy Spirit you should not be fat or unhealthy.


Therefore doing what you need to do to not be fat or unhealthy is something that you do for the Holy Spirit’s benefit.

A few things irk me about this kind of thinking (to be clear, I am not singling out the RELEVANT piece; I just see it as representative of many Christian writings and utterances on diet and health). In no particular order:

1. Fat is inevitably made to = SIN!

And it just isn’t necessarily so. Further, even APART from Christian ethics, American culture already demonizes fat and worships thinness. Claiming that people who are overweight are therefore sinful isn’t only unhelpful, it’s also unfair. Body types vary greatly: some people are just plain bigger than others. Some people can’t exercise due to disabilities. Some people have hormonal imbalances that keep them overweight despite their efforts to the contrary.

[Besides, lots of things that Americans love are ‘sins’ that no one seems to get too enraged over. Like loving money! And gossiping. But getting upset over fatness? That’s for people of every faith and no faith.]

2. Eating + Health are not necessarily connected in the ways you might think.

French people eat triple creme cheese, drink loads of coffee with cream and lots of wine, eat tons of white bread baguettes and wouldn’t dream of leaving off the butter–and they are healthier, on the whole, than Americans. We’re tempted to call this the “French Paradox,” but as Michael Pollan points out, it’s probably more accurate to speak of an “American Paradox“–a notably unhealthy people obsessed with the idea of eating healthfully. All our fretting and our reduced-calorie products and skim milk and butter substitutes and egg substitutes and sugar free candies and cleansing diets and nutrition supplements and fitness regimens and food weighing and fad diets and ‘sensible eating plans’ and calorie free sodas have done us no measurable good–in fact, levels of obesity have RISEN along with the availability of diet foods and fitness obsession.

Further, as any good nutritionist will tell you, nutrition is a young science. We can’t even know for sure what an ideally healthful diet looks like–people live and thrive on diets that are as wildly different from one another as can be. Inuit people have traditionally lived on mostly seal meat and fat; indigenous peoples in Guatemala on corn, squash, and beans. Some people live on blood and meat; others on milk and cheese.

Inuit people eating a traditional food--Maktaaq (frozen whale skin and blubber)

We can know this: the typical American diet isn’t it doing anyone much good. But that may be connected to things we don’t usually consider, like WHEN to eat, WITH WHOM, and WHERE. (We’d do better to eat at the table, with others, and at reasonably regular intervals–3x each day.) Plus, “healthy” eating has as much to do with ATTITUDE as anything else–see this post about dietician and therapist Ellyn Satter. I don’t know if she is a person of faith or not, but her way of eating aligns beautifully with the heart of a Biblical theology of food: that we should eat with gratitude and JOY. (It makes you healthier, for real!) which leads me to…

3. The Bible has so much more to say about food BEYOND “eating for health.”

Actually, the Bible says almost nothing about eating for health. (Yes, that includes Daniel’s vegetarian experiment, but that’s a post for another day.)

Food, in the Bible–and in our lives–represents God’s gracious gift. In the beginning, in Eden, God delights to feed the people he has made. A Biblical understanding of food recognizes that food doesn’t come from the store, or from money–it comes from the soil, the sun, and the sustaining, gracious hand of God. Eating it together binds people together in unity and love (see yesterday’s post) and making sure that everyone has enough–feeding the hungry, in other words–is a crucial aspect of “love thy neighbor” and an aspect of what James’ epistle calls “true religion.”

In today’s complicated, globalized world, eating with love for God and love for neighbor means seeking food that is raised in ways that build up and enrich rather than destroy and break down the soil, animals, and people involved in its production, remembering–and seeking to help–those who do not have enough to eat. And it means eating mindfully, with awareness that food is NOT fuel but a gift from God.

James Tissot, French (1836-1902) The Gathering of the Manna

We DON’T need “spiritual” reasons to pursue a “healthy” diet.

We DO need a new food culture, and there’s plenty of wisdom–in the Bible and elsewhere–that’s ready to help us shape one.

Of course, it has to begin where all change begins–with us.

Weekend Eating Reading: Ellyn Satter

…the Saturday post!

Weekend Eating Reading briefly discusses at least one good book that’s somehow related to ‘joyful eating,’ and is, throughout the weekend, updated with links to notable or newsworthy articles on topics relevant (I hope!) to readers of Eat With Joy. Feel free to point out (and link to) others in the comments!

This week I’d like to highlight the work of Ellyn Satter, a dietician and counselor who’s a recognized authority on the issue of “feeding,” particularly when it comes to feeding children and families. However, her model of “eating competence” is also highly relevant to adults. It is based on the twin concepts of permission and discipline–in her words–

“The permission to choose enjoyable food and eat it in satisfying amounts.”


“The discipline to have regular and reliable meals and snacks and to pay attention when eating them.”

(Bet that’s not the kind of “discipline” you expected…)

Weight, for Ellyn Satter, is not the big issue: comfort with eating is.

Her diet plan–which is no diet plan at all–looks like this:

  • Context: Take time to eat, and provide yourself with rewarding meals and snacks at regular and reliable times.
  • Attitude: Cultivate positive attitudes about eating and about food. Emphasize providing rather than depriving; seeking food rather than avoiding it.
  • Food acceptance: Enjoy your eating, eat foods you like, and let yourself be comfortable with and relaxed about what you eat. Enjoying eating supports the natural inclination to seek variety, the keystone of healthful food selection.
  • Internal regulation: Pay attention to your sensations of hunger and fullness to determine how much to eat. Go to the table hungry, eat until you feel satisfied, and then stop, knowing another meal or snack is coming soon when you can do it again.

[from Ellyn Satter’s website]

Remarkably, people who follow Ellyn Satter’s “eating competence model”–whether intentionally or by natural inclination–are happier and healthier, according to published research. Her therapeutic model–which is easily accessed in her clear, easy to read books, is as relevant to those who overeat and binge as it is to those who diet and otherwise restrict.

Much of Ellyn Satter’s work focuses on feeding children, and, in particular, on the feeding relationship between parents and children–parents, she says, get to decide the when and what of eating; children, the whether and how much.

My impression from reading Ellyn Satter’s books is that her approach aims to return people to the instinctive joy that most of us have in food. Food is good! Most cultures appreciate that and nurture joyful trust in eating, but ours–for reasons too complicated for this post–doesn’t. However, gratefully and joyfully accepting and enjoying food is, to me, what people are created by God to do. Eating is pleasurable–one of the great pleasures of life “under the sun,” as the writer of Ecclesiastes put it.

In fact, that’s why this site is called “eat with joy”–it takes its name from Ecclesiastes 9:7-10. Life’s hard–and one of the delights God has given to us is eating. Our right response, then, is joyful gratitude!

my competent eater

I don’t know if Ellyn Satter is a person of faith or not, but I think her work does a great job of helping us get to that place of joyful gratitude. To my mind, it is a ‘Biblical’ diet.

{You can see Ellyn Satter’s full catalog of books here; you may also be able to find them at your local library.}