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Faith vs. food: Are religiously based weight-loss plans healthy?

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Don’t be surprised if waistlines around the Bible belt seem to be shrinking of late. The recent popularity of Bod4God suggests that the Scripture-hungry are gobbling up the advice from faith-based weight-loss programs.

Founded by Steve Reynolds, the head pastor at Capital Baptist Church in Annandale, Va., Bod4God transforms the traditional concept of worshiping God —  e.g., sitting and kneeling — into a competitive game that encourages followers to fight obesity with a healthy diet and active lifestyle. Reynolds says the premise of Bod4God is to uphold the First Commandment — “You shall have no other gods before me” — and explains to MSN that some Christians who struggle with their weight may be “unwittingly valuing food over their faith.”

Participants engage in a 12-week competition in which they’re assigned to teams and attend meetings once a week. According to the website, the program has helped Reynolds’ congregation lose more than 12,000 pounds since 2007, and Reynolds himself dropped 120 pounds. Bod4God turned “DIET” into an acronym in order to promote its message:

  • D = Dedication: Honoring god with your body
  • I = Inspiration: Motivating yourself for change
  • E = Eat and Exercise: Managing your habits
  • T = Team: Building your circle of support

 

Religious weight-loss plans, when involving healthy diets, can be effective and beneficial. Dieters already have a built-in support system and could use their desire to improve their spirituality as extra motivation to achieve the results they want. However, there is currently no solid research suggesting that religiously based weight-loss programs are more effective than secular ones.

That said, Bod4God isn’t the only deity diet out there. Here are four others that use a higher power to drive lifestyle changes — but not always healthy ones.

 

THE HALLELUJAH DIET
If you’re one of those people who believes Noah actually did build an ark and Jonah actually did survive for days inside a live whale, there’s a diet for you that takes the Bible just as literally. The Hallelujah Diet diet is basically a stricter version of veganism, with heavy supplementation, crazy amounts of juicing and recommended exercise. But the founder prefers to describe it as “God’s way to optimal health.”

Premise: The Hallelujah Diet extracts its guidelines from Genesis 1:29: “And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat [food].” Thus, the diet relies on fruits and vegetables, and also limits consumption of saturated fat and hydrogenated oils while encouraging more exercise and alleviating stress , plus heavy supplementation. The 12-lesson course “Biblical Nutrition 101″ can be downloaded online for free, and followers of the diet can access recipes on the website. The supplements, which are sold on the website for significantly more than their cost at drug stores, make this a profitable business for the diet’s founders.

History: Developed by Rev. George Malkmus and his wife, Rhonda, the Hallelujah Diet is promoted by Malkmus’ company, Hallelujah Acres. Thirty-two members of a church reportedly completed the course and followed the diet, which resulted in a total weight loss of more than 700 pounds.

Allowed foods: Raw, uncooked and unprocessed plant-based food comprises 85% of the diet, and cooked, plant-based food is allowed for dinner to make up the last 15%. Heavy supplementation is also part of the deal, though we were unfortunately unable to find the Genesis reference supporting God’s approval of supplements.

Restricted foods: Dairy, alcohol, caffeine, carbonated beverages or soft drinks, drinks with artificial or natural sugar, sports drinks, juices containing preservatives, refined salt, refined sugar, artificial sweeteners, refined grains, meat, eggs, chocolate, drugs (including over-the-counter and prescribed drugs)

Other aspects of the diet: Exercise, strength training and stretching 30 minutes a day; proper cleansing; adequate rest; and sunshine exposure

Criticisms: Where do we start? The website is packed with unsubstantiated claims. Exhibit A: “What most people do not realize is that almost every physical problem they experience, other than accidents, has a diet-related cause.” This, combined with the restriction on prescription drugs (albeit with a note to discuss with your healthcare provider), is a recipe for disaster. Imagine if people with genetic disorders and diseases believed everything could be prevented or cured with a diet change.

Secondly, the Hallelujah Diet is so strict that it could lead to deficiencies. Stephen Barrett, MD, founder of Quackwatch, stated: “Although low-fat, high-fiber diets can be healthful, the Hallelujah Diet is unbalanced and can lead to serious deficiencies [e.g., protein]. The overall program is expensive because the recommended supplements cost over $2,000 a year.  Rev. Malkmus’ sales pitch includes beliefs that are historically and nutritionally senseless, as well as health claims for which he lacks appropriate substantiation. Using his diet instead of appropriate medical care is very foolish.”

In case you’re wondering what Barrett meant by “historically and nutritionally senseless” beliefs, please note that the main reason Malkmus excluded meat and cooked food from the diet is because he believed Genesis indicates that when these foods were added to humankind’s diet, “the lifespan of man dropped from an average of 912 years on God’s original diet to 100 years.” He’s currently 79 years old, so if anyone from the year 2923 is reading this, he better still be alive.

WWHWDWhat would HellaWella do? Experts claim that this diet could lead to deficiencies of crucial vitamins and minerals. If you really want to “treat your body like a temple,” deficiencies aren’t the way to go. Plus, the Jesus who emphasized a minimalist lifestyle probably wouldn’t have spent $2,000+ a year on supplements.

 

THE BIBLE DIET (aka the Maker’s Diet)
The Bible Diet is what you want if you interpret the Bible literally but thought the Hallelujah Diet sounds like it should have been named the Hell Diet.

Premise: The Bible Diet is based on a handful of biblical references, particularly the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, which state that God considers certain foods “unclean.” 

History: Created by motivational speaker Jordan Rubin, the Bible Diet book touts that the program is a “40-day health experience that will change your life forever.” (You’ve got to give him credit for detail, he even used the Bible’s “40-day” theme.) Rubin claims the diet was responsible for his recovery from Crohn’s disease as a teenager, although there is no scientific evidence to back this up.

Allowed foods: Organic veggies, fruits and legumes, fish with scales (e.g., salmon and trout), cows, goat, lamb, plus an ungodly amount of supplements that Rubin sells through his website. Additionally, Rubin believes in eating a variety of unprocessed, whole foods , or at the very least, foods that have been less processed than others (e.g., brown rice instead of white).

Restricted foods: Processed foods, or those produced with hormones, pesticides or fertilizers; smooth fish (e.g., catfish and eels); crustaceans with hard shells (e.g., lobsters, crabs); pork; bacon; ham; sausage

Other aspects of diet: Prayers of thanksgiving, healing and petition are said at the beginning and end of each day.

Criticisms: Rubin has a degree in naturopathic medicine from the Peoples University of the Americas and a PhD in nutrition from the Academy of Natural Therapies. Since the former is not accredited by the Council on Naturopathic Medical Education or licensed by the North American Board of Naturopathic Examiners and the latter is not accredited by the American Dietetic Association or other mainstream nutrition organizations, Rubin’s credentials are often criticized.

There currently is no scientific research to back up the diet’s claims, and the emphasis on organic food is not directly supported by scientific evidence, according to the Gale Encyclopedia of Diets. And while Rubin is clearly making an effort to follow God’s law, he’s committed a few sins in the eyes of the Food and Drug Administration, which ordered his company, Garden of Life, to stop making unsubstantiated claims about eight of its products and supplements in 2004.

WWHWD? With the exception of the excessive supplementation, which seems to have been included in the diet simply as a way to profit from it, this diet could be worse. It at least includes protein and a variety of foods from every major food group, but the strict emphasis on natural foods, plus the dependence on supplements, will inevitably result in the thinning of your wallet in addition to your waistline. On the bright side, the religious aspect could provide some extra motivation for spiritual people.

 

THE DANIEL FAST
The Daniel fast is exactly what it sounds like — a fast based on the book of Daniel. While a fast isn’t exactly a diet, we’ve added it to the list because the Daniel Fast Research website suggested it could be an “ideal diet for many individuals seeking enhanced health and function via food intake” if followed on a regular basis (“possibly with a few modifications to allow for additional food choices, such as lean meat and dairy products”).

Premise: The Daniel fast lasts 21 days and is based on Daniel 10:2-3: “In those days I, Daniel, was mourning three full weeks. I ate no pleasant food, no meat or wine came into my mouth, nor did I anoint myself at all, till three whole weeks were fulfilled.” Sounds fun, right? Obviously, the fact that it’s a huge challenge is what makes it a spiritual sacrifice, though maintaining such a strict diet long-term would just make all of us chocolate- and wine-loving mortals look bad –and probably impair your health (not to mention your sanity). The purpose of the fast, according to the website: “to consecrate (set aside) a specific period of time to draw closer to God to hear from Him. A powerful side benefit of the Daniel Fast is the improvement in health that most people experience.”

History: Unknown

Allowed foods: It’s a short list: vegetables, fruits and water.

Restricted foods: Anything that tastes even moderately delicious: All meat and animal products, all dairy, all sweeteners, all leavened bread, all refined and processed food products, all deep-fried foods, all solid fats (e.g., shortening, margarine, lard and foods high in fat), alcohol and any beverages other than water

Criticisms: We couldn’t find any reviews of this diet plan online, but it definitely lacks sufficient nutritional requirements for a long-term diet.

WWHWD? We recommend that if you follow the fast, you only follow it for three weeks. Depending on your religious preferences, it could benefit your relationship with God, but we wouldn’t look to it as a weight-loss plan (though with the severe limitation on calories, you will inevitably lose weight, just not the healthy way).

 

WEIGH DOWN WORKSHOP
As long as you pray and are skilled in noticing when you’re hungry, there’s no need to count calories or look at Nutrition Facts labels anymore — at least according to the Weigh Down Workshop. The program offers a 12-week Bible study in 35,000 churches around the world and sells online video classes on its website.

Premise: Weigh Down believes that many people mistakenly try to fill a spiritual void with food when really the issue lies in their faith. The diet focuses on avoiding the second deadly sin, gluttony, and supports its diet plan with parts of Proverbs, Ezekiel and Ruth. The website explains that “God gave us natural body signals,” and all we have to do is pay attention to them to know when to stop eating.

The solution, according to Weigh Down, is to only eat when you hear your stomach growl, and then to step away from the food and replace your love of food with your love of God. You can eat whatever you want —  actually, the plan encourages you to eat your favorite foods first and leave the least favorite foods on your plate.

History: Tennessee-based Weigh Down was founded by Gwen Shamblin, a dietitian and Christian fundamentalist, in the 1980s. According to the website, more than a million people in 70 countries have signed up for the workshop.

Allowed foods: Daniel would be appalled: You can eat whatever you want. The website encourages dieters to “trust instincts and make good choices,” as well as “seek divine intervention.” Talk about an easy diet to follow religiously!

Restricted foods: None

Other aspects of the diet: Well, what’s an eat-anything diet without a no-exercising-necessary policy? Courtesy of the website: “In Weigh Down, the only exercise God requires is surrendering your will to His perfect system of hunger and fullness.”

Criticisms: There are currently no research studies indicating that this is an effective weight-loss approach. And waiting for your stomach to growl isn’t always the most reliable way of knowing when you should eat. WebMD quoted Toby Smithson, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, pointing this out: “Growling in your stomach is a normal part of digestion and may not always suggest an empty stomach. It could be a result of swallowing air,” Smithson says. “Furthermore, when you let yourself get so hungry, your blood sugar can get too low and starvation is likely to trigger a binge or overeating.”

WWHWD? If it sounds too good to by true, it is. In addition to the potential adverse consequences of waiting too long to eat, a diet that puts more emphasis on your “favorite foods” than your “least favorite” can’t be a healthy way to lose weight — unless you have the luckiest taste buds in the world and Brussels sprouts and carrots taste like chocolate and french fries to you.

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