Wellness, Food Morality, and the Longing to Be Cleansed
Jesse walks into a restaurant with a group of friends. They look at the menu, and he stares at it for a long while wondering how to minimize his carb intake, looking constantly around at the words emerging from others’ lips, but not really hearing the words. He has already studied the menu online beforehand, but he browses it to calm his anxiety around the food. He gently rests his hands on his stomach, remembering that he doesn’t feel good enough, thin enough, and this ideal of someday being thin enough gives him the drive he needs to order the salad amongst all of the other options. The time comes to order. The girl to his left orders a burger with fries and a milkshake. The guy to his right orders the chicken parmesan and starts going ham on the bread along with the other members at the table. The waiter looks right at Jesse. Huh? he says. He must have missed something in the fogginess that clouds his hungry, thought-consumed head. Oh, he adjusts back to the conversation around him. I’ll just have the house salad, dressing on the side, and umm, extra veggies please. When asked by his friends why he eats so little and so oddly, he simply responds, “I’m cutting down on carbs, I want to lose a little weight.”
Weight loss is seen as a good and desirable thing to attain in our society, and we associate thinness with good health. Juicing, clean eating, and fad dieting are among the most common vehicles used for achieving this epitome of health. We consider certain foods ‘junk’ or bad foods, while others we have labeled as good. As we begin to correlate the foods we eat with terms like good and bad, food becomes similar to a religion holding moral value for the eater. Our society deems restriction as transcendent, labeling starvation as willpower, and associating the way that some eat with purity and cleanliness. These dietary patterns are often performed in the name of health. In this way, our culture reflects beautifully innate longings that are misdirected as the pursuit of wellbeing can be very easily tainted by our societal idealization of thinness. This desire for health is sometimes manifested in trying to cope with one’s problems by physically trying to shrink in size through harmful behaviors and patterns, which can very easily lead to patterns of disordered eating common in American society.
How the Body Functions on a Diet
We are all born with natural hunger and fullness cues, partially driven by hormones. These cues tell us when to eat by producing a hormone called ghrelin, and when to stop eating by producing a hormone associated with fullness called leptin (19-23).1 These cues are also what help our bodies to function properly and to maintain our set point of weight, the weight at which our bodies function best (13).1 When we do not follow these cues over a long period of time, the body’s set point begins to fluctuate and change. Thus the body reacts with protective mechanisms such as the restriction-binge cycle. As one restricts food from the body, stronger hunger cues are sent to the brain making food look more pleasurable and increasing appetite to help the body acquire the nutrients that it needs. After long periods of restriction, one tends to binge on food in response to withholding essential nutrients from the body. These binges tend to occur more frequently as restriction increases, because the body has been deprived, and it does not know how long it will be until it will receive nutrients again. Restriction can also be easily disguised as what Registered Dietitian, Christy Harrison, refers to as “the wellness diet.”2 This wellness diet includes societally normed measures of restriction that we refer to as clean eating. It vilifies nutrients like carbohydrates, sugar, and many forms of fats. What often goes unnoticed in this process is that restriction of macronutrients is inherently restriction of overall energy needs as well, both under the guise of clean eating. Part of clean eating is a subtle form of restriction that can cause one’s set point weight to fluctuate in an unhealthy manner. Registered Dietitian and Nurse Practitioner, Robyn Nohling writes that “Any way of eating that forces you to rely mainly on external regulations versus listening to your body’s internal cues is a diet.”3 It is about changing the way that one eats and cutting out certain foods, and that behavior is not healthy for cultivating relationships and experiencing life to the fullest. In fact, clean eating can be detrimental to one’s health when it becomes all-encompassing.
The Morals Behind Clean Eating
When our society becomes fixated on associating food with morality, people who are unable to afford trendy superfoods suffer and are looked down upon for trying to nourish their bodies with the resources available to them. When we associate words like “cheating” with the foods that we eat, we dehumanize those who eat these so-called “bad foods.”4 We assign moral worth and value to people based on the size of their bodies. We associate willpower with those who are in smaller bodies and laziness with those in larger bodies. It is as if our culture has told us to become smaller and smaller, taking up less space in this world that was given to us for the taking. In reality, morality is mutually exclusive from the food that we eat, and living out our values and truth is separate from the size of our bodies.
Religious professor at James Madison University Alan Levinovitz has studied the connection between what many dietitians refer to as diet culture, which is “a society that places value on being a certain size, weight, and shape over actual health.”5 He writes about how the roots of this diet culture are actually very religious in their historical foundation, writing that “the vocabulary we use for food has strong undertones of morality.”4 As an illustration, he discusses the paleolithic dietary notion that we must eat only what our ancestors consumed and would recognize as food. Parallel to this, many Christians express a desire to return back to their historical texts and long for a culture that resembles biblical times. This desire and longing for simplicity and for a time in the past seems to be an innate human longing. Could it be that the human heart longs for paradise lost? We want something that was good that we no longer have. For the one who considers themselves to eat paleo, the caveman's diet provides this return to goodness, while for Christian's, it's Eden, perfection restored, that we long for. This is a concept which Levinovitz refers to as “past as paradise.”4
Levinovitz examines another piece of this religious foundation of the growth of diet culture. As culture shifts towards different definitions of morality previously found in organized religion, moral value is being placed on food rather than on deeds. In the words of Levinovitz,
“Processed food is [considered] evil. Natural food is [considered] good. Evil foods harm you, but they are sinfully delicious, guilty pleasures. Good foods, on the other hand, are real and clean. These are religious mantras, helpfully dividing up foods according to moralistic dichotomies. Of course, natural and processed, like real and clean, are not scientific terms, and neither is good nor evil. Yet it is precisely such categories, largely unquestioned, that determine most people’s supposedly scientific decisions about what and how to eat.”6
Not only is this a misdirected placement of moral value on food but also an aversion to that which we refer to as unnatural or complicated. What if the desire for things we consider to be natural excludes societally the unnatural?6 It is really just a sly way of defining who is in the in group and who is outside the group. These terms, natural and unnatural, are inherently exclusionary towards people groups we consider unnatural or deviant from our societal norms. This can easily draw connections in the mind about those considered different or outside of society’s restrictive box.
A Deeper, Lasting Cleanliness
Christians believe that what is beautiful about Jesus is that only He can make us fully clean, whole, and new, independent of what we eat. This cleanness is lasting and precious, outside of ourselves and not according to our faulty efforts. Through Jesus, our bodies become vessels to care for; neither positive nor negative entities but neutral and to be used for good and creative endeavors. In the Bible, Jesus was often at dinner tables gathering with people, and that was special to Him for a reason: He wouldn’t have turned food away from those who offered it to Him because He saw their love for Him. Jesus knew what it meant to be able to not only to receive but to give another the opportunity to give. For Jesus, service was more important than what was being served; gratitude was of greater worth than what was being eaten; and true health and wellness was to show care for the gift of a body given from Him. Nohling writes, “You can be eating the most healthy, greenest meals that are organic and local and grain free and GMO-free and all those things….but if that is at the expense of your social and relational health, it’s not healthy at all. Food is a connection point. It brings people together.”7 These words reflect the very heart of Jesus; He gives us a cleanness that is independent of what we have or have not eaten, and His love for us and His ability to make us pure is much deeper than any other diet or lifestyle in this world.
Christians believe that Jesus offers a cleanness that is not about what goes in or out. With Jesus, “cheat” days do not really matter and do not exist because goodness is not about what we physically do or our own perceived ‘self-control.’ It is all about grace that we do not deserve lavished on us by Jesus, not the works we try to do to earn goodness and attain perfection. Like the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, we create rules to make us seem more pure and to help us to be more righteous before God, when all that Jesus really cares for is to be with us and to be in relationship with Him. With Jesus, our bodies have the freedom to change and to grow and to be used for good things. With Jesus, He breaks the bread, He eats the carbohydrates, and He does not judge us for what we do and do not eat. With Jesus, worth is so much more than a donut, or a salad, or any other food because it comes from the act of Jesus dying on the cross and lavishing His grace over us to make us fully clean.
1. Bacon, L. (2010). Health at every size the surprising truth about your weight. Dallas: Benbella Books.
2. Harrison, C. (2018, April 09). How to Avoid Falling for The Wellness Diet. Retrieved August 22, 2018, from https://christyharrison.com/blog/the-wellness-diet
3. Nohling, R. (2017, October 25). If It Looks Like a Diet, It's a Diet. Not a Lifestyle. Retrieved August 22, 2018, from https://www.thereallife-rd.com/2017/10/diet-culture/
4. Dahl, M., & Levinovitz, A. (2015, May 07). Diets Are a Lot Like Religion. Retrieved August 22, 2018, from https://www.thecut.com/2015/05/diets-are-a-lot-like-religion.html
5. Morley, G. (2018, December 03). Don't Hate the Dieter, Hate the Diet Culture. Retrieved August 22, 2018, from http://init4thelongrun.com/2018/03/12/diet-culture/
6. Levinovitz, A. (2015, April 21). The Logical Failures of Food Fads. Retrieved August 22, 2018, from http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2015/04/food_fad_evidence_logic_and_science_can_fight_misperceptions_about_nutrition.html
7. Nohling, R. (2018, April 06). Relationships Are What Matter. Retrieved August 22, 2018, from https://www.thereallife-rd.com/2018/04/relationships-are-what-matter/