the shape of leadership

Faith and Obesity

Leading the way toward healthier habits

JoAnn Butrin on March 9, 2020

I love food. I think about it much of the time. I imagine my next meal. I take pictures of what I cook or order and go on food treks in various places around the world. I watch cooking shows on TV and have favorite TV chefs. I’m a self-proclaimed “foodie.”

Or am I? Is that just a nice way of saying, “I’m obsessed with food?”

I am also a health professional. I’m concerned about the statistics I read and about the health of those around me — fellow ministers, missionaries, co-workers and friends who have not conquered their weight issues.

According to the Trust for America’s Health and the U.S. Centers for Diseases Control, about 1 in 3 Americans (more than 100 million, of all ages) were obese in 2019.

The National Center for Health Statistics defines obesity as a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or more (consistent with World Health Organization criteria), or about 30 pounds or more overweight. Extreme obesity is defined as a BMI of 40 or more, or 100 pounds or more overweight.

C. Everett Koop, who served as surgeon general under Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, identified obesity as the second leading cause of preventable death in the U.S. Strikingly, over the last 30 years the incidence of obesity in the U.S. has increased 70% among adults and 85% among children.

Obesity carries serious health implications, including increased risk for Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke and many types of cancers, and often leads to disability or death. Obesity and the illnesses associated with it increase costs in health care by an estimated $150 billion annually.

I’ve been part of the decision-making body of my denomination for 15 years, and I don’t recall ever seeing a paper presented or a hardy debate had on the topic of obesity.

Most of the sessions I have attended through the years do have papers or discussion on the evils of alcohol. Impassioned speeches are given by those who have lost relatives due to alcoholism, and rightly so. Alcoholism wreaks havoc on individuals and families and has been the cause of the downfall, and even the death, of many ministers. Driving under the influence, a serious danger of alcohol consumption, kills people every day.

Yet I wonder about those in the audience who have lost relatives to stroke, or the complications of diabetes or heart disease, often related to obesity. Perhaps it is a difficult topic to address when one looks around the room and sees many who might appear overweight or obese. Such a discussion could cause offense and discomfort.

There are also those who, try though they might, can’t shed the pounds due to a physical challenge or the inability to exercise. There are many, myself included, who have tried every diet that comes around but couldn’t sustain weight loss. Not all who are overweight are guilty of what the Bible calls gluttony — which seems to indicate a form of gorging. Many of us have simply gotten into some unhealthy eating habits and keep reaching for the high-caloric foods.

We in ministry have a responsibility to be good stewards of our bodies and good examples for those we lead.

Most of us wouldn’t think of taking a drink or smoking a cigarette, but we can consume enormous amounts of food to the point of feeling quite miserable. If this is a once-in-a-while meal, and most of the time we eat a balanced diet, it’s probably not a big deal. But when it is our daily habit and the pounds pile on, we are moving toward dangerous health risks.

I’m not writing this article to bring a guilt trip to those who overeat or who may be obese. I am very much aware of my own struggle and have spent most of my life trying to keep my food obsession in check.

It’s more about what we, as evangelical Christians and leaders, tend to focus on and preach about, while rarely mentioning the risks of constant overeating or obesity.

Thanks to a small amount of discipline and my professional health background, I’ve been able to avoid becoming obese. But not without a struggle. If I ate all the things I want to eat, I’d be overweight for sure. I’ve had to repent for being food obsessed, which, in a way, is a form of gluttony because it consumes more of my thinking than it should.

We often use food to comfort us when we are sad or grieving. We use it to celebrate. We use it when we are lonely, stressed or depressed. I sometimes come home from work and say, “This has been such a hard, stressful day. I will to eat something good.” (That does not usually translate into celery sticks or a salad.)

Sometimes we have no real reason, but have simply formed the habit of overeating. As with alcohol, cravings or urges can keep us overindulging and turning to food to deal with whatever is happening in our lives.

Of course, it is OK to enjoy good food and sit down to a delicious meal. Food is a gift from God. It is useful to celebrate, to entertain, to fuel, to love, to show hospitality, and to care for people in tangible ways. The Bible says a lot of positive things about food. “That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil — this is the gift of God” (Ecclesiastes 3:13).

We need food. When we can figure out ways to be in a healthy, moderate relationship with it, it is wonderful and life-giving.

The question is, can we, as ministers and leaders, be challenged to think about our teaching and preaching in a manner that points out the pitfalls of overindulgence with food and its consequences — just as we continue to preach against alcohol and tobacco and other addictions that may “defile the temple” and be displeasing to the Lord? Can we find ways to talk about this in non-offensive, diplomatic ways, perhaps using our own struggles to open the door to this message?

If we ourselves are not a good example and would find it hard to speak or preach about overindulgence because we engage in it ourselves, could we use this simple article as a wake-up call to begin a journey of change? Though fad diets can get us on the road to healthier eating, they are rarely sustainable, and we tend to go back to old habits.

There are some really healthy food habits that focus on keeping carbs to a minimum and eliminating sugar that can help take down the pounds pretty fast. Combining healthy foods with 15 to 20 minutes of vigorous exercise a day will benefit not only weight loss, but overall health in general.

I do believe that we in ministry have a responsibility to be good stewards of our bodies and good examples for those we lead. Let’s ask ourselves whether there are some changes we need to make to improve our health and be as excellent as we can for the Lord.

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