Plant-based diets have skyrocketed in recent years, taking a fringe movement into the mainstream, but should Christians get their teeth into this new trend?
Gluttony: The heart problem that gives you heart problems
As Christmas approaches, so does the temptation to overindulge. James Cary reviews his own dramatic weight loss in light of what the Bible says about gluttony
At church people thought I was ill. I was wasting away before their eyes. No one wanted to ask me about it. What was going on was unusual, especially in our culture. The reality was a little unsettling for some people when I told them. They were often impressed, but they were always shocked. Here’s the truth: there was nothing wrong with me at all. I hadn’t had a health scare or worrying diagnosis. I was just successfully and voluntarily losing weight.
I realise that sounds a bit smug. People who lose weight are normally every bit as boring and preachy about their new state as those who quit smoking, but I do get asked about my weight loss all the time. Friends who last saw me a couple of years ago are always astonished by the sight of the slimmer and smarter chap standing before them. (The smartness came about because I had to jettison my old clothes and buy a whole new wardrobe. Thank goodness for TKMaxx.)
People kept asking about my weight loss for one main reason: diets don’t tend to work. If they did, the dieting industry wouldn’t be worth billions of pounds a year. Weight Watchers, Slimming World, low-fat products (made palatable by the addition of sugar) and all kinds of diet books are relaunched every January, as millions feel the guilt of excessive eating over Christmas. Many of us make New Year’s resolutions to lose weight and get fit as we flail around trying to take control over our food consumption. Any diet will do.
We might even be prepared to exercise. Every January the gyms are filled with the huffs, puffs, pants and groans of people on treadmills and cross-trainers. They say they want to get fit, but, if they’re honest, it’s probably more about trying to lose weight. Either way, we don’t stick to exercise regimes any more than we do diets.
Once our New Year’s diet and exercise resolutions have failed, along comes Lent, giving us another chance at self-control before gorging on chocolate at Easter. Then the advertisers are primed and ready to cause panic among the populous: are you ready for the beach? New diets and exercise regimes are wheeled out again.
So far, so cynical. But it’s hard not to be. I’d attempted to lose weight before, but I was always very half-hearted. I’ve never really been a drinker, plus I used to swim at least twice a week. As a family, we cook almost all meals from scratch so we weren’t eating a lot of processed food. I thought all this gave me license to eat as much as I wanted. I would only stop eating when all the food was gone.
My weight nudged up and up until February 2018, when I weighed myself and realised I was 16 stone 4lb (103kg). It’s a healthy weight. If you’re seven foot two. At five foot eleven, I was obese by any reckoning.
The Body Mass Index is not a kind measurement. It said I needed to weigh below 12 stone 10 in order to be considered even borderline healthy. That seemed like a pipedream. Even the NHS website wasn’t optimistic. When I entered my details and was declared ‘obese’, it suggested I lose 11lb, which would then mean I was merely chronically overweight. Presumably, the NHS assumes that telling people to lose more is unrealistic. On the evidence presented above, they’re probably right. But I had one piece of self-knowledge that made all the difference. I realised that I was overweight for one simple reason: I was a glutton.
Pigs, plenty and Passover
Gluttony is a sin. In fact, it’s one of the seven deadly sins, but that is not a list you will find in the Bible. The original septet of sacrilege was developed by a fourth-Century monk, Evagrius Ponticus, who, being a self-denying type, put gluttony at the top. The list was modified and codified by Pope Gregory I in AD 590 and defended by Thomas Aquinas more than 600 years later.
But is gluttony as serious as all that? You’ll not find it in the Ten Commandments. In the Law of Moses you will find plenty of laws about food. And pigs. But eating like a pig is not one of them. These commandments are given to God’s people on their way to a land that is described as “flowing with milk and honey” (see Exodus 3:8). And that’s a good thing.
En route to this land of plenty, God provides bread and, at one point, quails waist-deep. When the Israelites get to the border of this promised land, the spies bring back a bunch of grapes so large it has to be carried on a pole between two people. Clearly, abundance of food is some kind of divine blessing. We should not be surprised that God commanded his people to celebrate their deliverance from slavery with a Passover meal of the finest lamb.
In the New Testament, Jesus institutes a new meal for his followers to eat. He also tells stories about sumptuous banquets that ungrateful folk decline to attend (which is a bad thing). In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ first miracle takes place at a wedding feast when the wine has run out. Jesus does not suggest that everyone’s had quite enough. He produces gallons of the finest red stuff. He drinks and dines with tax collectors and is accused of being a glutton and a drunkard. Both Jesus and Paul give long lists of numerous and dire sins. Gluttony is not to be found in them.
If there is a biblical emphasis on anything, it is notable that both Jesus and Paul are at pains to point out that food does not contaminate us or make us ‘unclean’. There’s nothing about the food itself that is inherently sinful. Even the fruit in Eden isn’t portrayed as the edible version of Pandora’s box, containing all the sins and vices of the world. The act of eating it was disobedience. So bacon sandwiches are not ‘naughty’. Doughnuts are not a ‘guilty pleasure’. Have a doughnut. It’s fine.
But have just one. Or two, if it’s a special feast day. But every day is not a feast day. Remember the rich man in Jesus’ parable about the pauper, Lazarus? This nameless millionaire feasted daily (not a good thing). There are also proverbs about gluttony, such as “put a knife to your throat if you are given to gluttony” (23:2), except on that occasion, the context is dining with a ruler and how there may be strings attached to what’s on the plate. Another proverb swiftly follows about not eating “the food of a stingy host” (23:6).
A heart problem
As usual, a basic thing like food isn’t basic when seen through the lens of the Bible, which is a complicated book of many books written over centuries. The problem is not with God’s word, nor his astonishing creation in which he has buried all kinds of gastronomic delights, as well as hiding his common grace in plain sight on the boughs of apple trees. The problem is our own self-righteousness and pride. As we read God’s word, the stories, the commandments and proverbs, we see we don’t have a problem with our stomachs, but our hearts. We project our own disfunction and pride onto food and define ourselves by it. This is the real problem.
There are many kinds of gluttony in which we use food to justify ourselves. There are foodie gluttons who are sticklers for quality, who won’t eat anything unless it’s been aged, oak-smoked or marinated in brandy in a barrel for twelve months and then slow-cooked for 72 hours. Everything is organic because “it tastes so much better”. (Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t.) Meat isn’t just grass-fed, but produced by a man called Brian whose family has been farming the same patch of land since the Norman Conquest. Here, God’s creation is being elevated, artisanal skills appreciated, but the danger is that food is being worshiped, not the One who made it.
There are the evangelical superfood gluttons who extol the virtues of some new recently discovered plant that tastes revolting but lowers cholesterol, releases energy slowly, fights off free radicals, reduces the risk of cancer and staves off ageing. Nope. You’re thinking of God, not goji berries. God does provide us with wonderful, sometimes almost miraculous resources (water is pretty amazing when you think about it). But these superfoods won’t reverse the curse of Eden. You can’t stave off ageing indefinitely. The writer of Hebrews tells us that “people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (9:27). Your superfood smoothie will be of no help.
We also have the ethical gluttons, who use food to generate an intoxicating sense of superiority. It could be a form of virtue-signalling veganism. There are those who will only drink coffee made with beans produced by Woke cooperatives, and others who won’t eat any fruit or veg that has been air-freighted. We should be responsible about how we use God’s creation, and how workers are treated, especially in poorer countries, but this can lead to pharisaical pride in our own self-imposed standards.
Our natural state is to weaponise food. However, it’s not just the food itself, but the effects of it. We can use those to make us feel guilty or superior. While we have made some progress in changing expectations of body shapes, Dove soap’s adverts being a notable example, we have now reached the stage where expressing concern over what might be morbid obesity is unacceptable.
We have no idea why someone is the size they are. The effect of food on the size of the human body is not particularly well understood. Rates of digestion and metabolism vary widely, meaning that some can stay slim indefinitely and others less so. Start taking steroids for a medical condition and the weight gain is astonishing. Hence the term ‘fat-shaming’ has entered our lexicon, and now we love to shame those who fat-shame. We really are the worst.
It is easy to be overwhelmed by media debates over diets, body shapes and how certain nations have the lowest instances of certain diseases because of their red wine, rice – or lack of rice.
When it comes down to it, we have to pay attention to all the biblical passages that begin “As for me...”. Take responsibility for the way you live. I knew I was a glutton. I would just eat too much for no good reason, and I got to the point of wanting to do something about it, so I followed the advice of Michael Mosley’s blood sugar diet, although I didn’t actually do the reduced calorie diet itself because diets don’t work, right? I decided not to ‘diet’, which suggests reverting back to old ways later. I resolved to change the way I ate, and create a new normal. So I have drastically reduced the amount of bread, potatoes, pasta, rice, cake, chocolate and biscuits I consume. I still have roast potatoes on Sundays, but I just have two. Not nine, as I used to.
The result? Steady weight loss throughout the year, eventually levelling out at about 11 stone 10 (75kg). That’s a loss of about 64 pounds (28kg) and I’ve been there for about a year. I sleep better, but tend to feel colder. That’s what losing all that fat does for you.
I may have delayed my need for a heart bypass, but I still have a heart problem, which is why I will remain a self-justifying glutton until the day I die.