Religion and Dieting

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T he history of fasting extends far into the past and is powerfully connected to religious ideas about contamination and rituals of devotion and purification (Douglas 2002). Many groups of people today still fast for religious reasons, but fasting is now also used by people to lose weight. There is, even today, a large body of religious literature on the evils of overeating, which suggests that fasting and weight loss will bring an overweight person back into God's graces. However, secular materials on fasting and diet also express many of the same ideas about contamination, cleansing, and salvation (or at least health). Ritual fasting remains a feature of Judaism (on Yom Kippur and other fast days), Christianity (during Lent), and Islam (during the days of Ramadan). The Enlightenment transformed fasting into dieting as a means of affecting the material body rather than providing some metaphysical relationship between the godhead and human beings. Fasting itself comes to be seen as a form of dieting.

The origins of the association between dieting and religious practice in America may be traced back to William Metcalfe (1788-1862), the first public advocate of vegetarianism in the U.S.A. and its mass popularization by Sylvester Graham (1794-1851), a Presbyterian minister and an advocate of dietary reform. Although Graham had no medical background or training, he was convinced that a vegetarian diet was a cure for alcoholism and, more importantly, would alleviate the impure thoughts associated with lust and sexual urges.

In modern-day America, dieting culture is still articulated through a Protestant Christian idiom and lexicon so that fitness culture now bears the characteristics of a religious movement (Griffith 2004: 8). Contemporary diet and fitness jargon is glutted with religious metaphors, conversion narratives and testimonials (Griffith 2004: 11). A corollary to this is seen in the medical field where eating disorders are often diagnosed as a "spiritual crisis." In today's culture, marketers have profited greatly by combining two things that sell, diet and religion. The emergence of many religious-based diets has become quite popular, some of these including: the Maker's Diet, the Body by God Plan, the What would Jesus Eat Program, and the Hallelujah Diet. The dieting regimen with prayer is exemplified in books such as Deborah Pierce's I Prayed Myself Slim and Charlie Shedd's Pray Your Weight Away. Shedd believes that our bodies do not belong to us, but instead belong to the Creator. He claims, "Your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit ... Inside, outside, God made you for His Glory" (Shedd 1957: 41). The concept of sin in these books is associated with gluttony and unattractiveness. Prayer is a means by which the desired result of attractiveness can be achieved; in doing so, one can be taken away from gluttony and ill health and be brought closer to God. This is an indication that sin and guilt have become a gauge of fat.

Evidence of the relationship between religion and dieting is also present in support groups like Overeaters Anonymous (OA), which is a nonprofit organization, originally founded to help those who suffer from compulsive eating but now also includes anorexics, bulimics, and compulsive eaters. The structure and philosophy of OA is based on the model of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). AA, founded in 1935, involves a "twelve-step" program for "recovery from alcoholism." This social movement has had a considerable impact on therapy across all levels of society. Central to its message, rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition, is the need for a particular relationship between God and oneself. The "Secular Organization for Sobriety" (also known as "Save our Selves") was created as an answer to AA. OA feels that compulsive eating is an "emotional and spiritual disease" and is "progressive and incurable," unless one turns their individual control over to God, the higher power, and asks for his help to aid in his or her reevaluation of life (Sobal and Maurer 1999).

It is not just religious diets, however, that emphasize the need for spiritual purpose in dieting. Indeed, many contemporary dieting books suggest that either dieters need to find peace in order to achieve dieting success or that the diet proposed will actually bring the reader peace. From wherever the peace originates, modern science has shown that religion can be a powerful factor in dietary success. One of the reasons suggested by researchers is that the church group can be a good support system for someone looking to improve his/her health. In addition, the Sunday morning service can be a good platform to distribute information on dietary changes for healthy weight maintenance. Therefore, some investigators have used people who attend church as research subjects to test dietary interventions.

In contrast to the use of diet as a representation of austerity and reverence to God in the time of Sylvester Graham, dieting in contemporary society has a very different relationship to religion. From the use of church groups as support groups for those coping with diabetes to the OA model based on curing the spirit, dieting is intrinsically linked to a higher power in many diets.

SLG/Rakhi Patel

See also Binge-eating; Christianity; Enlightenment

Dietetics; Graham; Ibn Sina; Jews; Metcalfe; Self-help;


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