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A second look at the second helping

How health concerns are weighing on the Church

by Lawrence Olson

It’s a Tuesday night, and I’m at home channel-surfing. After flipping through a few stations, I come to a stop on NBC’s hit reality series “The Biggest Loser.” As I watch the contestants sweat off the pounds, I wonder, Why am I fascinated by a show like this? And when did weight become such an issue for so many people?

Most of us would readily identify fitness as a problem in North American society. Less frequently would we say it’s an issue in our own churches. However, studies have shown that the frequency of obesity among believers is as high—and sometimes higher—than that of the general population.

Whether or not we like to admit it, North Americans are facing a health crisis. For far too long, we’ve avoided the topic, either because we don’t want to give up our lives of ease and excess, or because speaking into the deeper issues that cause weight gain is too painful. But in our denial, we, as the Church, have neglected to remember that leading a sanctified life means pursuing health—mental, spiritual, and physical. And if this shift in priorities should start anywhere, it should be in the community of faith.

Called to fast food?

For a period of time in my life, I could eat anything and not gain an ounce. In fact, at one point, I wanted to play football but couldn’t meet the minimum weight standard.

This changed dramatically around my 40th birthday. While working in church planting, I frequented convenience stores and fast-food outlets, justifying it in my own mind by reasoning that my ministry was important and I was just trying to steward my time well.

By 60, I needed several coronary stents, which the surgeon jokingly referred to as “Big Mac appliances,” and I still have a stubbornly high cholesterol level.

As numerous reports have indicated, maintaining an overweight condition for a prolonged period of time shortens one’s lifespan and increases the likelihood of health risks like Type II diabetes, cancer, and high blood pressure. Even so, I suspect that others have, like me, used the misguided excuse of following Jesus to justify our extra pounds and less than great health.

But Christ has called us to love God and to serve others. When we take care of our bodies, we honor the Lord’s craftsmanship and are more able to serve with our whole selves.

Weighing in on holistic health

Realizing that our physical health and our spiritual lives are not entirely separate issues, we in the community of faith must consider ways to encourage more wholesome practices in both areas.

For those who recognize that they struggle with weight—whether weighing too much or too little—a good place to start may be your family doctor. Doctors can conduct a standard wellness test called the BMI (body mass index), which charts a healthy body weight for you based upon your height. If prompted, most physicians will recommend a weight and exercise program appropriate for you and can help you sort out the conflicting claims for incorporating vitamins and additives into your diet.

Another step toward holistic health involves training ourselves to recognize and confront the false, conflicting messages that retailers peddle about physical appearance. On one hand, culture insists that to be thin and fit is to be beautiful. (Thus the success of a show like “The Biggest Loser.”) Yet these same voices also tell us that we should never say “no” to ourselves, and then they offer products that, like the characters in Alice in Wonderland, relentlessly call us to “eat me.” And so, even as society shoves a generally unattainable template of perfection down our throats, it continues to spoon-feed us products to satisfy our voracious appetites as consumers.

Take stock of the ideas presented to you—through friends, movie stars, TV shows, magazines, or other sources. As your awareness of both overt and disguised messages about weight grows, consider how these messages influence your private judgments, stereotypes, and perceptions. Seek out others who strive not to reach a certain waist size but to make consistently healthy lifestyle choices. And speak out against ad campaigns more interested in selling a body image than a product. (Warning: There are many.)

Inviting everyone to the table

Equally vital is to consider with compassion the reasons why a person might struggle with weight. At times, the visible evidences originate from unseen causes, like depression, side effects of a medication, loneliness, or attempts to fulfill cultural ideals. Most times, improvements to one’s physical health will be limited until these deeper issues are addressed.

These influences are exacerbated by systems that support food inequalities. In a country where a two-liter bottle of soda costs around one dollar and a gallon of milk, about three, individuals in lower socioeconomic circles can more easily afford less expensive, processed foods than the more expensive lean meats and fresh produce. Yet these cheaper options come at a price: They’re full of empty, less sustaining calories from excessive fat, sodium, and sugar.

And so, the greater one’s food insecurity, the more likely they are to purchase processed and fast foods, and the more likely they are to experience weight gain and other health issues. Thus, people may become overweight not because they simply consume too much, but because they don’t have access to healthy, more fulfilling food options.

Again, this should move us to support efforts seeking to keep fresh foods as accessible, affordable, and untainted as possible. It should also motivate us to reconsider the foods that we donate to local food banks, offering not the dregs of our cupboards—the sodium-laden soups, sugary cereals, and nutrient-bare canned vegetables—but the items that communicate our concern for the well-being of everyone in our communities, regardless of economic status.

Our family feasts

As the body of Christ, it’s our job and our joy to encourage each other toward sanctification, temperance, and healthy living. Rather than approaching weight as an issue of appearance, we need to recognize the hidden injustices and insecurities that might be behind our weight struggles. And we should remember that we can better perform God’s work in the world when we are healthy in mind, body, and soul.

As I turn off the TV for the evening, it occurs to me that maybe we should think about updating those trusty old potluck recipes with a lot of salt, sugar, and butter. Heading to bed, I chuckle at an idea for a new reality series: documenting a church as it transforms its potluck dinners from creamy casseroles and decadent desserts to marinated meats and fresh fruit salads. Let the drama begin!

This article originally appeared in the fall 2010 issue of In Part magazine.
Lawrence Olson

Larry Olson is a bi-vocational pastor at Light of Christ Fellowship, a BIC church in Johnston, Iowa. Over his years in ministry, he’s served as a missionary in the Aleutian Islands; a church planter in Colorado, Wisconsin, and Wyoming; and a chaplain for the Air Force Reserve. Now that he’s in semi-retirement, he has more time for his hobby of providing authentic jacks for antique car restorations. He and his wife, Karen, have six children.

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