As of 2019, weight loss was a 72-billion-dollar industry in the U.S. This number is not so much an indicator of increasing health as it is evidence of a business model that profits when people trip up—which is true of even the best-intentioned exercise and diet programs. The market’s emphasis on willpower, which we have in limited supply, simultaneously makes our success unsustainable and holds us responsible for it. Thus begins an endless cycle of dieting and exercise. At first glance, this dance seems wise. I’ve heard it preached from the pulpit several times, usually in reference to our bodies being temples. And why would we question that norm? Some part of us likes—perhaps even needs—the promises that diets offer.
I first questioned my “healthy lifestyle” when I noticed that the number on my scale set the tone for my day. I never thought my attempts to cut carbs, log exercise, or research nutrition would hurt me, but the time I spent worrying about it suggested otherwise. What some people saw as discipline was actually a need for control, insecurity about my figure, and constant worry. I began to wonder if this was how God had designed my body to function.
Research shows this obsession over fitness does not work in our favor—physically or mentally. When bodies receive imbalanced nutrients, starvation mode begins, decreasing metabolism and increasing fat storage. As restriction becomes chronic, body processes change for the long haul, augmenting the likelihood of binges, cravings, heart disease, eating disorders, stress, and low self-esteem. But anything is safer than leaving the body to its primal devices, right?
Most of us believe that given free reign, we’d consume all the ice cream and pizza in the world. And that may happen, studies show, if we’re coming out of starvation mode. But otherwise, research finds it not to be the case: Experts Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch write that “once your body learns (and trusts) that you will not be starving it anymore (through dieting), the intense drive for eating will decrease,” and “you will be [able to rely] on your internal signals” for hunger.
I never thought my attempts to cut carbs, log exercise, or research nutrition would hurt me, but the time I spent worrying about it suggested otherwise.
God made our bodies with both biological and mental cues we can heed. Some are obvious—like stomach gurgling, irritability, or trouble focusing. Certain signals are logical, like realizing your last meal was five hours ago. But we’re so used to dampening these cues that we don’t know how to listen even if we want to. Instead, we tell ourselves to drink water when we’re hungry, or stick to the serving size on the box.
Relating to our bodies with bottom-up wisdom is countercultural, and many don’t trust it. But nothing Jesus says about the kingdom of God resembles a life dictated by diet or exercise. Consider the Beatitudes, and how gentleness, peacemaking, purity of heart, and suffering are blessed. It would be fitting, then, to approach our physicality with curiosity, tenderness, and acceptance rather than guilt-ridden preoccupation. Or look at the fruit of the Spirit. By abiding in the Holy Spirit, Paul says, we exude peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control. Is it possible that self-control here means more than abstinence, and it asks us to evaluate common culture using the microscope of the kingdom of heaven? That it resists idolizing anything, including our health?
God Himself would agree our bodies are temples, but rigor and conquest are not the approach He had in mind. There is a subtle difference between punishment, which shames, and discipline, which honors—so how are we to take care of ourselves? It starts with believing the body is not designed to betray us but is a God-given ally, and that the “flesh” we’re to tame is our misguided human nature—not our physical self. And it requires us to be meek: not passive but gentle, thoughtful, and attentive people who believe time—and God—are on their side.
The body is not designed to betray us but is a God-given ally, and that the “flesh” we’re to tame is our misguided human nature—not our physical self.
Those who are meek might pause mid-meal to wonder if they’re full or still hungry, and then proceed without judgment. During dessert, they would remember it won’t destroy their physical makeup to consume—or decline—the treat without guilt. They would skip a workout in deference to an emerging virus, or go for a walk at the urge for movement. They might notice obsessive thoughts concerning body image and pause for prayer. The risk with this discipline is that we’re not guaranteed the outcome we think we want. Listening to our body and honoring its needs won’t make us look like the people we admire in the media.
Research also shows true health has no particular dimensions. Every person has a “set point” weight—a range of fat storage and chemical balance at which the body achieves homeostasis—and that’s where the body wants to stay. This means no one can look at another individual and deduce whether he or she needs to eat more broccoli or slow down on the cardio. There have been several studies done on this, but one in particular educated a group of women about health at every size, while the control group participated in a conventional diet. After one year, neither group saw a significant change in weight, but the educated group showed lower LDL cholesterol and blood pressure, reported higher self-esteem, and actually enjoyed being active and eating. Unlike everything we’re used to hearing, we can have health in many sizes.
Of course, the set point weight can change over the course of your life, whether from natural biological changes of aging or hormones or a major life incident. And it does not mean that every person at every weight is in good health. As with anything else, there are exceptions and people who very well may see benefits from losing weight or working out. However, the extent to which body weight is considered the primary cause, and solution, of general health has been grossly overstated. When doctors decline to treat patients on the basis of weight (which happens in the fertility field), it seems clear that size has become a scapegoat in modern medicine. Starting in the ’90s we learned that fat actually helps our bodies, and we’re learning today that opioids aren’t the best option for pain. I think one day we’ll regret attributing so many problems to our body shape and weight.
The mystery of God lives in our very bodies, and our full understanding of them is not only unlikely but unmerited.
The reality is that our bodies are too complex to let weight be the primary indicator of our health. Genes and disorders and biology we don’t understand are at play, and most people who have tried to change their shape would attest to the resistance of those factors. The mystery of God lives in our very bodies, and our full understanding of them is not only unlikely but unmerited.
It should be the church leading this cause, refusing the lure of diet culture and surrounding every shape of person with acceptance and love. But up until today weight loss has been welcomed into western churches in the name of stewardship—and then we wonder why believers struggle with insecurity and judgment. It’s time for the church to offer a different narrative, to be a place where people are valued for Whose they are. It’s time for us to stop judging believers in larger bodies, thinking they have less self-control or some suppressed spiritual issue. Health is far more complex than we, in the modern American church, have understood.
What if we interrupted our friends when they demean their own appearance? How would you respond if your pastor challenged you to accept the body you’re in? What if we were freed from diet-induced criticism—and ate and moved and looked in the mirror guilt-free? These questions sound far-fetched, but that’s exactly why we need to ask them.
Unfortunately, the day I first wondered about my understanding of health was not the day I changed it—I developed an eating disorder first. But my doubts gave me the push I needed to begin recovery, and now, with the help of licensed dietitians, counselors, and doctors, I’m learning how to relate to my body and food in a sustainable way. (To be clear, my rigid eating and exercise did not cause the disorder, but they did contribute to it.)
I’ve been thinking about these things for a little over a year now, and I’m beginning to understand I was never promised a shape I love—nor was anyone else. No amount of work or restraint will be enough. So I’ve enjoyed slowly reclaiming chips, craving broccoli, attempting yoga, cycling, and thinking about my appearance less. I’ve found myself going to bed earlier, saying no when I don’t have energy, and replying yes to what invigorates me. Some days it even seems as though tending to my physical needs has clarified my mental and spiritual ones, leaving me more in tune with the Spirit. Either way, all of it has left me a little more gentle, a little more compassionate, and that’s the best outcome for me and those I love.
Illustration by Sergio Membrillas