Faith and the fork

Is it time for religion to examine its role in expanding waistlines?

San Diego Union-Tribune/May 20, 2004
By Sandi Dolbee

Doughnuts after church services. Cheesecake at the temple. Spaghetti dinners in the parish hall. Fried chicken for the Sunday potluck. Pastries to help break the Ramadan fast.

Praise the Lord and pass the devil's food cake.

"Most Jewish holidays can be summed up with: They've attacked us, we won, let's eat," says Rabbi Leonard Rosenthal of Tifereth Israel Synagogue in San Carlos. "Food is considered to be an integral part of every single celebration."

Breaking bread is also big in Christianity.

"Christ said we are to love one another," says the Rev. Gene Beezer, of Faith Bible Fellowship in Santee. "If you never eat together, can it be said that you love one another?"

Stories of Jesus abound with images of eating. "Much of what he did was around a table," says Father John Dolan at St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church in Chula Vista.

But the marriage of food and faith may need some postnuptial counseling.

With obesity at epidemic proportions in the United States and unhealthy eating habits and lack of exercise closing in on tobacco use as the country's leading cause of avoidable death, it may be time to ask about religion's place at the table of blame.

"I think that the church, generally speaking, has not done a real good job of addressing what the Bible talks about as gluttony. That's a really unpopular word," says Elyse Fitzpatrick, a Christian author, counselor and founder of Women Helping Women Ministries in Escondido.

A 1998 Purdue University study found that religious people were more overweight than non-religious people. Though the problem cut across all faiths, Baptists were the heaviest, with Jews, Muslims and Buddhists the least overweight.

Should congregations step up to the plate, so to speak?

"We have a responsibility to take care of the body, and we have to stop providing the doughnuts," says Deidre Little-Persson, a nutritionist, wellness coach and author of "Fit for Eternity." "It's like they're giving the drug dealers the needles."

Nudged by a buffet of popular books about faith-based diets and special ministries that focus on nutrition and health, some religious groups are shifting toward a more holistic approach of connecting the mind, body and spirit.

"There is a kind of revival for people coming back to realizing that the church does have influence over drug abuse and obesity and eating disorders," says Little-Persson, who lives in Escondido.

For more than four years, Gloria Lynch has helped lead a local program that goes into African-American churches to teach about better eating habits and healthier lifestyles.

She says the program talks to people about baking instead of frying, about cutting back on fat and loading up on fruits and vegetables.

"A lot of them are changing," says Lynch, coordinator of the Revival Time Nutrition Network that is based out of her husband's church, Revival Time Community Church of God in Christ in North Park. "One of the things we advocate is it's a lifestyle. It's not something that happens overnight."

According to the American Obesity Association, 70 percent of blacks are overweight, compared to 73 percent of Mexican-Americans and 62 percent of whites.

Is this really what religion ought to be concerning itself with in the great scheme of things? "Absolutely," Lynch answers. "God is not just concerned about the spiritual part of man. . . . You can't be what you need to be spiritually if you're not healthy."

Florida wellness guru Jordan Rubin turned to the Bible, the Hebrew books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus in particular, for eating habits that he says changed his life. His book about it, "The Maker's Diet," was released last month and is a bestseller.

Rubin describes it as going back to our dietary roots, how he believes God intended for people to eat, which includes meals of organic foods and only certain meats and fish.

He doesn't only blame communal religious gatherings for feeding our fat. "I think everybody's part of the problem. Organizations in general have been geared toward food and particularly junk food."

These same organizations, Rubin says, can be part of the solution.

Students in the weekly religious education program at All Hallows Roman Catholic Church in La Jolla get bagels and bottled water instead of ice cream sandwiches. Karen Downs instituted that change after she became minister of catechesis, or religious instruction.

She was more concerned with sugar intake than weight issues. "Children in the afternoon need to be fed, but they don't need to be wired," Downs explains.

Fitzpatrick, the North County counselor and writer, notes that the Bible teaches that our bodies belong to God. That's what ministers ought to be teaching, too, adds Fitzpatrick, whose books include "Love to Eat, Hate to Eat: Breaking the Bondage of Destructive Eating Habits."

Food has become this culture's false god, argues Gwen Shamblin, a Tennessee dietitian and founder of a Bible-based weight-loss program, the Weigh Down Workshop. That lust, she says, needs to be redirected to religion.

Or, as she puts it, "You can't bow down to a pan of brownies and God."

Faith leaders agree on one thing: Their religion doesn't promote abuse.

"In Buddhism, we're constantly working on our minds and being mindful," says Kelsang Gyalmo, education program coordinator at Vajrarupini Buddhist Center in Hillcrest.

"I believe that the cause of this epidemic is actually attachment to food," she says. "We believe that food is the source of our happiness, and because of this, we develop an addiction to food."

Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam and other faiths preach moderation as part of their theology.

"You have to have self-control, as with anything else," says Rabbi Rosenthal of Tifereth Israel.

Imam Baseem Syed of the Islamic Center of North County in Poway says he's noticed how people may take only a small piece of a doughnut instead of the whole thing. That way, they can have the fellowship without too much of the fat. "In our society, food is considered a good thing, but at the same time there is a religious responsibility to eat everything in moderation," Syed says.

Rabbi Rosenthal, like several other clergy in the county, is reluctant to sermonize about obesity. "The criticism just makes them feel worse," he says. "Certainly they know they are overweight. They know they have a problem."

Besides, he adds, "I'm not sure I'd want them to feel uncomfortable coming to the synagogue."

Ditto for the Rev. Beezer, of Faith Bible Fellowship in Santee. "We don't want to be offensive," he says.

There's also the risk of making people feel unworthy or that God doesn't like fat people, says the Rev. Jeanette Moffett, executive pastor of the Church at Rancho Bernardo. "We try to love people to Christ, and love them to wholeness, not punish them to wholeness," she adds.

North Coast Church in Vista, which offers services in multiple venues, tailors its snack menu to match each specific location. A contemporary service for young people at one end of the main campus features Mountain Dew, for example, while family-oriented services at nearby Roosevelt Middle School in Oceanside serve Krispy Kreme doughnuts and Starbucks coffee.

"I don't know that we're really contributing big time to an overweight problem," says Pastor Jennifer Groth, who is in charge of growth and development at North Coast Church. "Since it's just a Sunday morning treat, I don't think it swings the scales one way or the other."

Still, the question has the Rev. Kathy Hurt thinking out loud about the goodies served at her Solana Beach congregation, the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of San Dieguito. "Maybe," she adds, "there is something that can be less hard on our waistlines."

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