Religion is used to market everything from books to politicians. But diets and exercise programs? Of course.
In 1998, Purdue University released a study that claimed religious people were more likely to be overweight than their secular peers. Why? Well, studies show that many people lose weight because they're dissatisfied with their bodies—and the sense of well-being that religion promotes reduces that effect. Possessed with greater self-esteem, active churchgoers are less critical of their bodies, therefore less likely to engage in dieting and self-regulation for increased social acceptance.
Kenneth Ferraro, the study's author, also cited a moral tradeoff: Churches turn a blind eye to gluttony in order to attack the A-list sins. With divorce, sodomy, and violent video games, who cares about an extra plate of cheese fries?
But over the past few years, with obesity rapidly scaling the ladder of public-health concerns, weight loss is being preached from the pulpits, too.
Like church-run AA groups or grief counseling, many faith-based weight-loss programs started off as support groups in church basements, or self-improvement projects through congregation-based buddy systems. Tapping into faith provides the motivation, support, and willpower to tackle the slow and difficult process of weight loss and to maintain determination when results are less than dramatic. As recent trends in politics and culture indicate Americans are a religious people, open to applying religious principles to all aspects of their lives, the market has thrown open its doors for faith-based diet regimes and fitness programs. Religion and weight loss already rule the self-help shelves, so why not bring the two together?
Weigh Down, a program targeted primarily to the Weight Watchers crowd, relies on prayer to change the nature of hunger so that shedding pounds is simple and painless. Since God created all foods (including Spam and Marshmallow Fluff) as part of his divine plan, dieting is reduced to a minimum. As for exercise, which promotes prayer over pushups, the program's founder, Gwen Shamblin, cites Timothy 4:8: "For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things."
The Maker's Diet bills itself as a 40-day journey toward a healthy lifestyle through carb-cutting, fasting and vitamin cocktails. Infusing new-age wellness with ideas from the Bible, it includes paeans to juicing and tips like, "For maximum spiritual benefit, try praying each time you experience hunger."
But despite the important psychological and spiritual grounding faith can bring, these regimens belong to the new generation of glamorous shortcuts that bypass responsible eating and exercise.
Weigh Down's website emphatically declares "No diet! No exercise! Eat your favorite foods!"
Pray away the pounds sounds an awful lot like, "Eat all the steak you want and still lose weight," or "Burn fat just by watching television!" What differs about these products is not a greater sense of spirituality but the way they are niche marketed to modern evangelical audiences, like the band Creed and "My Boss Is a Jewish Carpenter" bumper stickers.
For those who still believe in sweat, religious analogues to familiar gym routines are also growing in number and popularity. Disconcerted by the Hindu and mystic aspects of yoga, Laurette Willis created a Christian alternative to yoga, called Praise Moves, by removing the chakras and chanting, renaming the positions to reference scriptures, and focusing meditation on being one with Jesus.
One of the better-known purveyors of religious workouts is Billy Blanks, the creator of Tae Bo, who is a devout Christian. In his "Believers Workout" tape series, he puts a religious spin on his motivational barking and punch-kick combinations.
Perhaps drawing on some of Blanks' popularity, Chai Bo, a fitness program of exercise and Jewish study, has also gathered a following. Claiming origin in a Jewish refugee community in Shanghai, it blends martial arts with prayer and ancient Hebrew numerology and divination.
Rather than an innovation in physical and spiritual well-being, faith-based fitness is an indication of how badly we want to believe that inside each of us lives a moral, successful, and thin person just waiting to break free.
But beware: Faith-based fitness is not for everyone. Please consult your Lord and Savior before embarking on any faith-based diet or exercise regimen.
Denali Dasgupta is an upstart journalist living in New Haven, Conn. She works at Legal Affairs Magazine and writes for the New Haven Advocate.
This article originally appeared in the New Haven Advocate. Reprinted with permission.
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