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.

And

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.