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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.