God Help Me —
Trigger warning: Discussion of weight loss diets.
As a lapsed Catholic, I hold a soft spot in my heart for organized religion. I watched with fascination as Jon Stewart grilled Richard Dawkins on whether the evils of religion are a pathology that can be found just as readily in secular institutions, a point which Dawkins conceded. Hell, even Jesus spoke out against religions becoming overly dogmatic, as the Jewish leaders known as Pharisees and Sadducees promoted a litigious view of scripture over the simplistic “love one another” construct. And it was Jesus who threw a massive tantrum over the widely-accepted practice of selling sacrificial animals in the Jewish temples, which profited the money-changers.
So any time I see a so-called Christian exploiting Jesus for financial gain, I’m immediately pissed. At its core, Christianity should be about giving away all your earthly possessions and living among and helping the poor, which is a pretty tall order. And yet, that’s what Jesus asked of his followers.
But as Max von Sydow’s character said in Hannah and Her Sisters, “If Jesus came back and saw what’s going on in his name, he’d never stop throwing up.” That about sums up my feelings on contemporary Christianity and the total absence of any compassion, humility, generosity and selflessness in the vast majority of churches, including Catholicism.
As could be expected, there’s a grotesque intersection between my contempt for modern Christianity and my contempt for diet culture: the Christian diet.
There’s no shortage of weight loss hucksters who have stamped Jesus’ seal of approval on some plan that will make you sleek and svelte, as Christ himself intended. Daniel’s Diet, the Genesis Diet, the Eden Diet, Take Back Your Temple: all designed to convince you that the authors have unlocked God’s secret, scriptural plan for slim hips by interpreting the Bible like it’s foretelling the arrival of St. Richard Simmons the Slender.
To give you an idea of how this works, the Book of Daniel describes how Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, crushed Jerusalem and enslaved several intelligent Jewish men as a way assimilating the Israelites. Among his captives, the prophet Daniel was wined and dined in an attempt to win his favor, but Daniel declined the rich food and wine of the court in favor of a modest diet of vegetables and water. His captors were afraid Daniel would be sickly on such a diet and that the King would punish the guards for negligence, but Daniel challenged them to let him subsist on his modest diet for 10 days and compare his appearance with his co-captors. After 10 days, Daniel looked healthier, so the guards made the other captors follow Daniel’s meal plan as well.
Take this story, churn in through some self-serving exploitation of the Great Fat Panic, and you have The Daniel Plan courtesy of Rick Warren, the Superchurch Pastor worth an estimated $14 million (though supporters desperately try to spin Warren’s austere lifestyle).
Except, as Time magazine deftly notes, Daniel’s “diet” had less to do with health and beauty, and more to do with resisting the King’s attempt to supplant the Jewish God:
Daniel scholar and professor of Old Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary Choon-Leong Seow represents a school of Christian thought that says Daniel is less a story of resisting rich food than a story of resisting a foreign king… Daniel and his friends resisted the king’s table, Seow says, as a tangible expression of their reliance on God’s power instead of the king’s. “They needed to establish their own identity. They even accepted silly names Chaldeans gave them,” Seow explains. “The one thing they could reject was the privilege of the king’s largess.”
In October, the Christian Broadcasting Network featured the story of Jimmy Moore, who lost 180 pounds on a low-carb diet prescribed by Dr. Eric Westman, who runs the Duke Lifestyle Medicine Clinic.
“I was wearing size 62-inch waist pants, I was wearing 5XL shirts, I was on three prescription medications for high cholesterol, high blood pressure, breathing problems,” [Moore] confessed. “I was a mess.”
Now here’s something that will shock you: Moore and Westman have a book out called Cholesterol Clarity: What the HDL is Wrong With My Numbers? For those unfamiliar with Moore, he runs the popular low-carb blog Livin’ La Vida Low Carb. Now Moore is spinning his weight loss as divinely inspired:
“All those years that I was dealing with the obesity I knew God was hearing my prayer, and that some day I was going to find the answer that was right for me,” Moore said. “And I have. And now I’m trying to share that with other people and be an encouragement to them.”
Moore is among the low-carb evangelists who seem to equally disdain all carbs, like in this post where he wrote, “Eating a potato is tantamount to eating a big piece of chocolate cake!” No, Jimmy, no it’s not. There is a huge difference between refined and whole grains, namely in the amount of fiber included. The more fiber in a food, the longer it takes your body to process the carbs contained, which is why it’s not the carbs, but the quality of the carbs that affects blood sugar.
As a result, you get testimonials from Jimmy where he claims “Before I started, I was a carbohydrate addict. I was eating two boxes of Little Debbie snack cakes a day, 16 cans of Coca-Cola a day.” Of course, this is what we’re meant to think of when we think of carb binges: 400-pound fatties eating two boxes of Nutty Bars and 200 ounces of soda each day. If that weren’t asinine enough, many from the low-carb/paleo school of thought proclaim wheat to be the Devil’s Candy and blame it for any number of ailments, including cancer.
But here’s a huge hole in low-carb logic: obesity and metabolic disorders are a relatively recent development. The Great Fat Panic was triggered by obesity rates spiking between 1980 and 1999. The solution, we’re told, is to cut wheat entirely from our diets and we’ll all be healthy again.
Except people ate wheat in the 1950s and the 1850s and the 50s, when Emperor Claudius died. In fact, we’ve been eating wheat since the Egyptians started grinding out loaves of bread in 5,000 BCE. More recent evidence shows we’ve been eating potatoes for nearly 100,000 years. And yet we’re supposed to believe that suddenly our species is incapable of digesting starch?
To be absolutely clear, yes, there are people with Celiac Disease who cannot process wheat and there are others who have a wheat sensitivity and whose symptoms improve when they abstain from wheat. But this is much different than these traveling bands of grifters who claim potatoes and chocolate cake are identical foods for all people. As anyone with even a semblance of dietary training knows, potatoes are chock full of vital nutrients, which is why the Irish potato famine was so devastating.
The problem with potatoes isn’t that they are chocolate cake’s most boring cousin, it’s that potatoes have come to dominate our consumption of fruits and vegetables. As Health At Every Size® (HAES) teaches, a diverse diet is the easiest way to improve your health. Enjoy your potatoes, but try to get more leafy greens and colorful fruits and veggies into your diet as well. Likewise with grains: unless you’re eating primarily carbohydrates, there’s no reason to freak out.
An intriguing theory that has cropped up in response to all of the seemingly-new food allergies (including wheat intolerance) is the idea that this isn’t some genetic shortcoming that proves we should be mimicking our paleolithic ancestors, but that our contemporary environment has changed the way our bodies respond to certain foods. In this excellent Fresh Air interview, author Daniel Lieberman explains a developing theory on food allergies:
Our immune systems evolved to be active. Just like our muscles and skeletons evolved to be used and stressed, our immune systems evolved to cope with all of those germs in the outside world. We’ve now created environments that are very sterile, that are extremely clean; we have very few pathogens that we have to deal with. And if we do get them, we nuke them with antibiotics. In so doing, we are now affecting how our immune system functions; it’s still there, and it’s primed and ready and waiting to attack all those germs and worms that used to make us sick, but now those pathogens are absent, so it sometimes by chance finds the wrong targets. So that’s the hypothesis for why so many allergies and autoimmune diseases are on the rise — is that our immune systems are essentially not being used properly, and as a result they go into overdrive; they attack ourselves.
You’ve probably also heard about the adverse effect that antibiotics have had on our gut flora, which scientists now believe may be contributing to increased weights in many countries. The ability to sterilize environments is a relatively recent development, unlike bread, so which theory do you think passes Occam’s razor?
What got me thinking about all these bogus Christian claims of carbohydrate poisoning is that Pat Robertson, who I find just as repulsive as his counterparts, actually said something that I agreed with and that made sense in the context of religious dieting. Yeah, I was shocked too.
In a recent episode of The 700 Club, Robertson took aim at Jimmy Moore and the low-carb lifestyle:
For those who can’t stand him enough to click play, here’s what Robertson said:
When your body burns this stuff with no carbohydrates, what happens is you build up the clinkers [Note: it sounds like he says “clinkers” but I have no clue what he means] and you get swollen joints, you get gout, you get all kinds of problems where you ache like crazy. They thought Atkins was wonderful and they’ve got all these scientific tests, but that’s the truth of it, if you don’t have some carbs in there, the carbs are the fire in there that burn everything completely.
I was intrigued by this last part, regarding carbs as fire. Carbohydrates are the fuel that burns cleanest. When you rely on protein for fuel (as happens on a low-carb diet), you produce excess nitrogen. The body can’t story nitrogen, so much of it is converted to ketones, which the body uses for fuel, and urea, the acid that causes gout. If you search the Atkins website for gout, you’ll find repeated claims from low-carb dieters who have to quit because they have suddenly developed gout. The standard response from low-carb gurus is that losing weight too fast is responsible, but research is pretty clear that a meat-rich diet exacerbates gout.
In this regard, I agree with Robertson, but where we part ways is when he says, “This thing is almost totally fat and protein. You can eat a lot of cheese and eat a lot of bacon, but sooner or later it violates the principles that God sets down.” Now, I’m not aware of any principles outlined in scripture which proscribe eating bacon (unless we’re talking Leviticus and the fact that pigs are considered unfit for human consumption), but if you want to find a single word that sums up God’s Biblical advice on eating it’s this: moderation.
HAES is about finding that happy medium between over-consumption and over-restriction. Both of these behaviors are frequently triggered by dieting and what is known as the restriction/disinhibition cycle, where you restrict your diet so intensely for so long that you finally snap and go on a monster binge to compensate.
When you have a balanced approach to diet and exercise, then you will find a sustainable lifestyle that will improve your health dramatically, even if it doesn’t make you skinny in the process. God doesn’t want you to diet, and if you’re a Christian, I would hope that you take a cue from Jesus when you see somebody shilling a weight loss plan as God’s idea and you drive them out of your life with a bullwhip.