Cover Story
Krieg Barrie

What goes into the mouth

Food | 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

Issue: "American bounty," Nov. 30, 2013

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. 

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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.


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