Reflections on Food and Dieting

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Most of us have a complex relationship with food.  It’s linked to our identity—we define ourselves by what we eat, or what we don’t eat:  “I eat organic food;”  “I’m a vegetarian;” “I don’t eat meat.”  We eat to comfort ourselves (chocolate, anyone?) or to punish ourselves (“I’m so worthless I’m going to overindulge”). Or we abstain from food to punish ourselves or to exert control over lives which can feel chaotic and out of control.

We have a complex relationship with food.  It’s linked to our identity. We abstain from food to punish ourselves or to exert control over lives which can feel chaotic and out of control.

Some of us have food allergies or intolerances, or other medical conditions that restrict what we eat.  Some of us struggle with eating disorders of various kinds.  Our relationship with food can make life very difficult in many ways, including social awkwardness, feeling conspicuous, major inconveniences, and serious health issues.   

Like most people (especially women), I am conscious of my weight, and also conscious of the barrage of conflicting information we receive about food and dieting.  I’ve not been a lifelong dieter, but as I’ve entered middle age and have resolved to fight “middle-age spread,” I’ve tried going sugar-free for eighteen months in the past, and since then have been more-or-less following the 5:2 Fast Day Diet for the past few years.  This year, for Lent (the six weeks leading up to Easter), I went vegan and sugar-free, though for spiritual more than physical reasons. 

In the midst of the barrage of messages, appeals, glowing testimonies, dire warnings, and the latest fads, how can I make sure that my attitude to food is shaped by God’s Word above all? 

Our society’s perspective

Be aware of the attitudes that our world promotes and fosters.  In an Australian—and, more broadly, Western—context, there are pressures and temptations which influence us consciously or unconsciously:

  1. We are incredibly wealthy and have access to a range of fresh and other foods unimaginable in many other times and places in the world.
  2. We (especially women) are encouraged to idolise our bodies and our health and to do all we can to have healthy diets and be within the correct weight range and look attractive.  This can foster self-centredness, an unhelpful self-consciousness, and obsessiveness about our bodies and food and exercise. 
  3. We are used to getting what we want, and to having options.  We like to be in control.  We have a sense of entitlement about many things, and this includes what we eat and drink (especially when it comes to coffee).
  4. Our society is obsessed with food: where it comes from, how it looks, how it’s cooked, how much we eat, where we eat …  So many cooking shows!  So much eating out!  So many options on the menu!

A Third World perspective

I grew up in Tanzania, East Africa, in the 1970s and ‘80s.  Most people there lived on a subsistence diet: maize, kidney beans, some green vegetables.  Meat and rice were luxury foods, for special occasions.  While my family could afford a greater range of food and never went hungry, there were nonetheless times when we experienced shortages of basic food items, including flour, sugar and milk.  Cheese, ice-cream, bacon and butter (and Vegemite!) were exotic foods that we just didn’t have in Tanzania. 

I was very aware that many people didn’t have enough to eat.  If the rains failed one season, people would starve the next.  Many children were malnourished, with the swollen bellies and emaciated limbs caused by kwashiorkor

This is the reality for many people in our world. The question they face is not which type of yoghurt to choose, but whether they will be able to get enough food to feed their children. Many people go hungry in our world; and many more have a boring, unvaried diet, with little choice about the quality and variety of food they eat.

A biblical perspective

As believers, what principles should guide our thinking about food and dieting?

1. Be thankful

Be thankful that we have enough to eat.  We pray “Give us this day our daily bread”, but how often do we thank God for answering that prayer?  Don’t take God’s good gifts of plentiful food for granted!

Be thankful too for the amazing variety of things we can eat and enjoy.  Despite what the diet books proclaim, no food is evil, and no food is a wonder cure for our ills: “everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving” (1 Timothy 4:4). 

2. Keep dieting and weight in proper perspective.

It’s easy to become consumed (no pun intended!) by thinking about food, about what to eat, what to avoid, about the latest superfood, about what in our pantry we should throw out, the next diet to follow …  How much time do we spend needlessly worrying about these things?  “Do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink …  Is not life more than food? … Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ … For the Gentiles seek after all these things … But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:25-33).  Keep dieting and weight in proper perspective.

3. Get a godly perspective on sin. 

Don’t fall for the lie that the greatest “sins” in our society are indulging in “forbidden” foods. It’s not a sin to eat a Magnum ice-cream. There are no forbidden foods, and there are much more significant things to worry about:  generosity, greed, hospitality, justice, gossip, sexual purity, and so on.  Beware claiming the moral high ground for one diet or another.

4. Practise self-control and put others first.

At the same time, self-control is important.  What does self-control in the area of food look like?  It could mean not over-eating, or intentionally limiting what we eat (that’s why I often give up something in Lent).  But it might just as much mean seeking to put others first: not making them uncomfortable by our food choices; cheerfully eating whatever we are given; choosing not to buy the most expensive brand.  It could mean not eating dessert. Or it could mean cheerfully eating a fatty, oily meal (or lentils when we’d rather have steak) for the sake of relationship. I recently saw a great example of this last principle amongst my daughter and her friends who were willing to set aside their vegetarianism to eat a meat curry served by the Ethiopian family whose kids they were tutoring.

5. Practice contentment rather than greed and self-indulgence. 

Greed can take the form of fussiness and obsession, not just over-eating.  Maybe it’s wanting the best for ourselves—the tastiest food, the best food experience, the most variety.  Are you a coffee snob, drinking only coffee made from coffee beans you’ve roasted yourself, and turning up your nose at anything else?  Are you miffed when a friend offers you a hot drink and they don’t have the vanilla rooibos tea that you prefer?

Gluttony can take a variety of forms (as C.S. Lewis eloquently explained in The Screwtape Letters).  What would a modern equivalent be?  “Sorry, I can’t eat what you’ve prepared; I eat only organic and ethically-sourced lean meat, and raw vegetables” …  “Is that chicken free-range?” … “Any food colouring in that?” … “How many food miles has that food done?”

Practise contentment, whether that means not grumbling about the restrictions of a coeliac diet, or eating what you are given, or sometimes cooking (and enjoying) the meals your teenage kids would like, rather than what you like.  “Now there is great gain in godliness with contentment … If we have food and clothing, with these we will be content” (1 Timothy 6:6-8).

6. Remember the poor.

Remember the poor, both those in Australia and those overseas. Consider spending less on food – eating out less often; preparing cheaper, simpler food; bearing in mind the high cost of some diets and “superfoods”—so that you can give more to needy people. 

7. Beware self-righteousness. 

It’s easy to be like the Pharisee in Luke 18:12, who boasted, “I fast twice a week …”  Perhaps our boast is “I’m a vegetarian; I’m not like those meat-eaters” or “I eat organic food, unlike those who pollute the environment” or “I avoid processed foods; I’m healthy” or “I’m not at all fussy about what I eat, unlike those on needless diets …”

8. Seek to please God, not ourselves.

Finally, “whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31).