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What goes into the mouth

The material symbol of God’s blessings at Thanksgiving time is a table laden with food, but many of us have trouble accepting grace. As legitimate concerns about obesity rise, so does the danger of turning healthy eating into an idol

What goes into the mouth

(Krieg Barrie)

Carlos Delgado/Orange County Register/Zuma Press/Newscom

LIVE AND LET DIET: Dr. Oz measures the waistline of Rick Warren during a health and fitness seminar at Saddleback.

Ana P. Gutierrez/Orange County Register/Zuma Press/Newscom

LIVE AND LET DIET: The launch of The Daniel Plan at Saddleback Church.

Priscilla Montgomery

LIVE AND LET DIET: Members of The Daniel Plan group in Temecula.

Ana P. Gutierrez/Orange County Register/Zuma Press/Newscom

EVERYTHING IN MODERATION: Participants run in a 5K during The Daniel Plan Fun Walk & Run at Saddleback Church.

It’s not at all unusual in Southern California to overhear a group of tanned, good-looking women discussing their favorite organic raw chocolate and gluten-free recipes over Starbucks coffees.  

But the 10 women in their 30s and 40s (and two husbands) gathered on a Wednesday evening are members of a six-week Bible study, offered by Rancho Community Church in Temecula. And they’re not going off-topic.

That night’s discussion was “See Your Health as a Stewardship,” the third session of Rick Warren’s “The Daniel Plan” curriculum—as in the biblical Daniel, who refused the king’s rich, meaty diet—and so should we, the plan advises. 

Warren created the program after baptizing 858 people. After dipping the 500th body into the water, Warren’s aching arms led him to conclude, “We’re all fat.” He later elaborated to his congregation: “Now, I know pastors aren’t supposed to be thinking this while baptizing, but … that was what I thought: ‘We’re all fat!’ And then I thought, ‘But I’m fat! I’m a terrible model of this.’” 

That epiphany led to “The Daniel Plan,” now popular at Saddleback Church and others across the nation that already emphasize small groups for spiritual support—so why not use these groups for Weight Watchers–esque support? After all, nearly a third of Americans are obese, and the rate of morbid obesity (meaning at least 100 pounds overweight) has jumped by more than 350 percent over the past 35 years. 

Millions of us face that fact with desperation and anxiety, throwing money into the coffers of the billion-dollar health and fitness industry and swallowing advice after advice on what to eat, how to eat, and when to eat. The most natural mechanism of the human body—eating—has become a maze of confusion, contradiction, and controversy.

Saddleback’s health and fitness program is a reminder that Christians are wandering in this health maze too. Physical stewardship isn’t a common pulpit topic, and it’s good for Saddleback to encourage Christians to care not only for their spiritual health but their physical bodies also. But is the church perpetuating a health obsession instead of alleviating it?

Some congregants criticized the choice of the three “top experts” Warren consulted for The Daniel Plan—Mehmet Oz (a heart surgeon, of Dr. Oz fame), Mark Hyman (a physician), and Daniel Amen (a psychiatrist)—because none of them shares the church’s Christian beliefs and values. Oz, for example, follows a jumble of Muslim, cult-Christian, and New Age ideologies, and has a wife who’s a master of Reiki (a Japanese life force mojo). He rose from heart surgeon to TV personality via Oprah and promotes questionable products and alternative treatments with adjectives like  “miracle” and “breakthrough.” 

Saddleback leaders posted a response assuring Christians of the medical expertise of these doctors, and emphasizing the evangelistic benefits of working with such high-profile figures: “We have already seen literally thousands of people on our campus as a result of involving these physicians who would never have otherwise visited.” 

Question: Is the gospel so weak that it needs health and diet celebrities to attract people to the church? What happens to the church when it becomes full of attendees primarily motivated to improve their bodies rather than seek after God? Has the true purpose behind Daniel’s diet—distinction and purity from contemporary, godless lifestyles—been lost?

The line can be subtle. At The Daniel Plan group in Temecula, the 12 members sit in a half-moon at a classroom with their Bibles and Daniel Plan study guides. They start with a prayer, read the Scripture, then watch a short clip of Rick Warren’s video sermon about taking care of the body God gave us. Attached to the sermon is Warren’s interview with Dr. Mark Hyman about functional medicine, an alternative health approach that takes an integrative outlook on the human body and the environment.

Surrounded by alphabet posters and bright-colored baby stools, the group members get “de-programmed”—in group leader Priscilla Montgomery’s words—of their ideas about health and fitness. One woman passed around still-steaming, home-baked apple cinnamon mini-muffins made from “a paleo recipe. Sixty-eight calories for one.” She read out the ingredients, including coconut oil, coconut, and almond flour, then anxiously asked, “Is this considered clean eating? There’s raw honey. … Would that be considered sugar?”

A younger, dark-haired woman next to her piped up, “Daniel would have eaten raw honey!” Someone across the room asked, “What does the ‘Good Foods List’ on The Daniel Plan say?” Another woman talked about her pantry purge after watching a video on “The Daniel Plan” website: She dumped bags of sugar, white rice, flour, and “bad oils” into the garbage. For lunch that day, she went to an organic health market and asked for a gluten-free wrap with nitrate-free chicken breasts. “So much better for me than In-N-Out,” she said, referring to the popular West Coast fast-food chain.

Yet another woman, speaking for the first time, spoke up for her beloved fast-food chain. In-N-Out is a Christian business, she reminded them, and did you know you can get the burger “Protein Style”—wrapped in lettuce instead of the starchy bun? And they have a vegetarian patty, another woman added. Montgomery tries to steer the conversation back to the key verse, “Everything is permissible, but not all is beneficial.” She asked class members if they had enviously watched their children chomp on a cheeseburger, then had lain awake before sneaking downstairs for a leftover cold fry? 

That’s no way to live in Christ, Montgomery suggested: “Maybe we can go to In-N-Out with our family. Instead of guiltily reaching for the skinny burnt fries, maybe we can go for a few nice, fat ones. Just slow down, breathe, and enjoy the conversation. Enjoy your family, enjoy that fry … everything in moderation.”

Montgomery, a blond, taut-limbed personal trainer, told me later that she found “The Daniel Plan” useful for its resources: books, study guides, and online videos comprised of devotions, meal plans, and workout routines. She initiated the group but doesn’t adhere to The Daniel Plan as religiously as her group members do: “Let’s think about what food really is. Food nourishes you. But it’s not supposed to be your god. It’s not something you should focus on, or shop and plan for all day, or talk about all the time on Facebook. It’s supposed to be a tool for God’s glory.”

Physical therapist and nutrition professor David Lightsey has offered a similar message over three decades. He’s met clients who refuse to eat apples or oranges because they have Type O blood, others on the Paleo Diet who only eat what their Neanderthal “ancestors” ate, and vegan students who believe “dead flesh” rots in the body and destroys Mother Earth. 

Each time he hears about such diets, Lightsey fights the urge to face-palm. “Just go and consume,” he tells clients: “Eat your fruits and vegetables, your grains and lean meats. And then don’t worry about it! Go about your life. Eating shouldn’t be that big of a deal throughout the day.” 

Lightsey says most of them respond, “That’s too simple.” He says, “Their fears have become a religion … of health and fitness. We’ve basically become obsessed with it. … As modern culture disengages itself from religion, an obsession of self—how I look, how I feel, how long I live—has filled that void. Self is our God now.”

Absent the faith that God holds dominion over all things, the world becomes a scary place: pesticides, genetically modified foods, nutrient-depleted soils, corrupt Big Agriculture companies, crooked government agencies in cahoots with dairy and soda industries, chemicals and hydrogenated oils in processed foods, environmental toxins and allergens—the list goes on and on. We worry about getting enough, and then we agonize over getting too much. 

How can people feel at peace, when every bite holds incomprehensible and imagined risks? The Bible reminds us that God made many things for our good, and there’s no need to live in fear. Obesity is a real condition with uncomfortable, destructive effects, so it needs to be fought: As Lightsey says, “It’s very depressing. But that’s why we need to approach it with the gospel. It brings us to our knees.”

Many studies have shown that social support groups can help people to adopt healthy lifestyles. Church small groups are vital to our spiritual health, so why not incorporate discussions on physical stewardship? Most people already know what to do, and need moral support to follow through: That’s The Daniel Plan’s foundation.

It’s worked for many Daniel Plan participants, including Warren, with some losing up to 125 pounds. People have regained energy and improved blood pressure and cholesterol levels. But it’s always a fine line. Daniel’s health was a great testimony of God’s favor. But it never was about the food.

Sophia Lee

Sophia Lee

Sophia is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine based in Los Angeles. Follow Sophia on Twitter @SophiaLeeHyun.


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  • lucy
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:19 pm

    Sophia, I have waited to respond to your article because we just came back to World News after a long period of missing it so much...and this return was bittersweet.  The cover clearly left us feeling there was a ridicule of sorts going on, mainly of those who eat organic, gmo, and gluten-free.  In reading the article, I felt you had cause to question much of what you were viewing, however your ultimate conclusions left me I had to write.  In part you said, " Absent
    the faith that God holds dominion over all things, the world becomes a scary
    place: pesticides, genetically modified foods, nutrient-depleted soils, corrupt
    Big Agriculture companies, crooked government agencies in cahoots with dairy
    and soda industries, chemicals and hydrogenated oils in processed foods,
    environmental toxins and allergens--the list goes on and on. ...

    How can people feel at peace, when every bite holds incomprehensible and
    imagined risks? The Bible reminds us that God made many things for our good,..."First let me explain: we have tried to "eat healthy," as the article seems to call it, for years now..since we discovered that gluten caused one son to have nervous anxiety and stomach pain, another son plus my husband to have sinus infections, and a daughter to have complex partial seizures. GMO food? As you said, "God made many things for our good..." and the body recognizes the molecular puzzle pieces of those "many things", but free radicals are the result of the body not recognizing a "puzzle shape" because it has been genetically modified. With statistics showing that 1 in 3 (conservatively estimating) will be diagnosed with cancer... eating genetically modified organisms is questionable to say the least. And now to respond to this statement: "Absent the faith that God holds dominion over all things, the world becomes a scary place: pesticides..."  This was the final shoe dropping. As I go thru each day caring for a husband who was poisoned by pesticides and left with nerve and brain damage as well as gastrointestinal damage, all permanent, I have to ask: Did your faith keep you from being in our shoes? Was it because of absent faith that we find we must eat organically, and have taught our children to try to do the same? Ours is not a path of choice but of necessity. We are not in a happy little group spending time trying to reach 2% body fat. We are aiming for health and aiming to trust God in the lack of it. Here's a silly little thought: Why don't you choose 6 people at WNG who are willing to go absolutely gluten-free for a month, and I mean reading labels and avoiding anything with soy sauce or other hidden sources, and then ask them 2 questions: 1.) Was it easy and fun and affordable? and 2.) Did you notice any changes in how you felt when you returned to gluten?  Since it is estimated that 1 in 3 people today are gluten intolerant (since I have been told that wheat now has approximately 4 times the amount of gluten in it that it did 100 years ago), my guess would be that at least one would find that (1), no it was not easy, fun, or cheap, and (2) that it helped them in some way to be off it.Maybe this aspect of watching what we eat could have been more fairly represented without the mandate to upgrade our faith so we could eat it all! Boy, don't we wish we could!Thank you for your consideration, Sophia.

  • Soby
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:19 pm

    I think you have a very limited understanding of the mindset of most Christians who choose clean eating (or natural living in general). I'm sick and tired of the idea that these things are somehow anti-Biblical. I believe that impression comes from the idea that because Hippies do it it must be wrong. This is just silly and completely uneducated. The Bible supports healthy eating, exercise, and other forms of a healthy lifestyle, it also supports living simply and naturally. No, you should not make it an idol. But eating well isn't the only good thing that Christians can (and do) make into an idol. How about being debt free? That is good and Biblical but I know people who make it an idol and who let it consume them. We should be good stewards of our bodies and the environment. Both are tools that God has blessed and entrusted us with and we should be maximizing their use, effectiveness and reach. A little research into food that is processed in a factory, sprayed with pesticides and/or genetically modified will show you that they are neither good for our bodies or the environment. There is plenty of evidence that they are doing major damage to both. Denying this is simply putting your head in the sand. You should research your topic further before writing an article that clearly is biased in one direction. I could write a better article on why Christians SHOULD be concerned with eating real food. No its not a salvation issue but it is a stewardship issue and an issue of taking good care of the Temple of the Holy Spirit. 

  •  SheSmiles's picture
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:19 pm

    I agree that we need to be good stewards of our bodies, and eating well is more about obedience to God than wanting to feel good about our bodies. I recommend a great book by Gary Thomas called Every Body Matters. He discusses how we need to be Christians not just from the neck up but with our entire bodies (you know the verse: love the Lord with your heart, mind, soul and strength) and how God can use us for many more years if we don't waste our health. It is not a diet or exercise plan book, but a look at our attitudes and what scripture says. Please take a look; Gary Thomas is much more articulate than I am about the subject!

  • SNelson
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:19 pm

    Interesting just because I have not seen that side of things; I guess I live too far out in the hinterland. Anything can become an idol, but what I see more than anything are older people suffering with physical ailments that are a direct result of over eating and lack of exercise: obesity. A few people on the West Coast straying too far the other direction hardly seems to be the "big" problem. Christians who embrace gluttony (even if they don't call it that) and try to solve the problem with medication are much more numerous. Stewardship of our bodies is real responsibility, and so is biblical adherence. I don't disagree with this article; finding the balance between healthy living/eating and obsession can be challenging. However, I would be concerned with people who are overweight and don't exercise taking the examples in this piece as an excuse to continue in their current bad habits.

  • Mrs Farmer's picture
    Mrs Farmer
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:19 pm

    Thank you, Sophia. The "Paleo " fad suggests we have not "evolved" sufficiently to eat bread.Hmmm...propping up Godless "evolution"? ...creating a cultural aversion to bread?... and so... "The Bread of Life"  becomes an oxymoron? an unhealthy poison? a revulsion?hmm...I smell a Rat. I'm quickly becoming gluten-free intolerant.     (Just to be clear, true Celiac's is a condition that affects only 1% of the population.  THAT is not a fad, and not what I am pondering on here.)

  • ErinC's picture
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:19 pm

    Thank you so very much for writing this article. I have literally searched the web looking for a balanced conversation on this issue. Many of my friends have become quite entrenched in the idea that some foods are nearly evil and we can achieve near perfect health and balance if we just knew the right combination of foods. As the wife of a grain farmer (not organic), I start at a place of disagreement with most of that mindset. And as a Christian, I struggle with the excessive amount of attention and passion that is invested in food. Moderation isn't our strong point, is it? Whether in how much we eat or how much attention we pay to it.

  • Homeschool lady's picture
    Homeschool lady
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:19 pm

    Rick Warren may have an admirable fitness program, but he teaches blatantly anti-biblical doctrine about meeting with God and prayer.  In some aspects of his spirituality teachings, he sounds like a mystic trying to Christian-ize his beliefs.  I am disappointed World treats him uncritically.  We all need to have the attitude of the Bereans, who tested even what the Apostle Paul said against Scripture.

  • Lew_in_the_world
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:19 pm

    Nice article Sophia.  "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom."  "He who wins souls is wise."  I recently listened to a missionary that has won thousands of lost souls to the Lord (David Hogan -  He fasts every other day, except when he has to deliberately seek the Lord (then it's more often).  His purpose is to win souls.  He is also quite fit.