by Dr. Scott Stoll
“Good morning. I am Pastor Doug, and I am obese.” Pastor Doug Anderson of Tyler, Texas,shocked his Sunday morning congregation with these uncommon and uncomfortable opening remarks. Just prior, he had a personal wake up call during his annual visit to his primary care physician. He learned that his body mass index had effortlessly slipped into the obese range and he was no longer just an “overweight” pastor. Stunned by the word “obese” now attached to his name, he knew that it was time for a personal lifestyle makeover.
Today in America, Pastor Doug is not alone. Nearly one-half of the American population will be clinically obese by 2030, according to a 2012 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. Researchers estimate that this will result in 7.8 million new cases of diabetes, 6.8 million new cases of stroke and heart disease, and 539,000 new cancer diagnoses. This epidemic of obesity and commonly associated diseases threatens the future of individuals, families, and our very nation.
But a potentially larger crisis is looming in our pews. Statistics suggest that church attenders were more likely than non-church members to be 20% overweight and have higher cholesterol and blood pressure. A 2001 Pulpit and Pew study of 2,500 clergy found that 76% were overweight or obese, compared to 61% of the general population. And a 2006 Purdue study found that fundamental Christians are by far the heaviest of all religious groups. This prompted lead researcher Ken Ferraro to say, “America is becoming a nation of gluttony and obesity, and churches are a feeding ground for this problem.”
Pastors and clergy are burdened by the sky-rocketing number of their members with chronic lifestyle related disease and confess that a disproportionate amount of their time is spent caring for ill members, while less time is spent in study, discipleship and evangelism. Obesity in the church appears to be undermining its primary purpose by straining its budget, absorbing money that would be spent on missions abroad, and consuming the time and energy of pastors and church members.
Churches across America stand at a critical crossroad today. An unsustainable trend of disease and obesity is incrementally undermining the health of individuals and the assembly, and very few are sounding the alarm. The rising cost of health care paired with the rising weight and disease burden of the church is a recipe for physical, financial and perhaps even spiritual bankruptcy.
How did we get to this point?
The contemporary church culture has unwittingly contributed to the rise in overweight and obese parishioners. Today, it is rare to hear a sermon preached on stewardship of the physical body and even more rare on the vice of gluttony; it has become a secret and acceptable vice. Tables at potlucks strain under the weight of pound cakes, pizza, fried chicken and cheesecake, and fellowship is not considered complete without these rich, decadent – and yes, addictive – foods. The sacred Sunday ritual between services is donuts, bagels and cream cheese, and coffee with cream and sugar.
As a physician, I am often “curb-sided” in church, at picnics, family gatherings, and Bible studies to answer health-related questions. Similarly, prayer chains are burgeoning with requests focused on health and the physical body. The physical, mental and spiritual are inextricably interwoven as designed by God, and we cannot disregard or ignore the physical without widespread repercussions to the mental and spiritual. In my medical practice, I have personally seen spiritual devastation from poor physical health: missionaries returning from their service due to health issues, pastors unable to preach, families stretched to the limit in every way due to poor health. I have also watched as people are transformed before my eyes once their health begins to improve. Depression, anxiety, fear and fatigue begin to clear, and a new spark of joy and gratitude begins to illuminate once darkened eyes.
The simple antidote is stewardship. Our great God created and owns everything, including our bodies, and we are managers of everything, including our bodies, for His plans, purpose ad glory, as we read in Romans 11:36. Owners of nothing, managers of everything. A simple message preached and taught from pulpits around the world could turn the tide and inspire believers to reclaim their bodies for God, and through the process, experience renewed vision, vitality, health and the joy of serving the Lord and others.
The good news is it’s not too late!
In January 2012, Pastor Doug made a decision to change his lifestyle and be a living example for his congregation. Three months later, he was 50 pounds lighter, healthier and filled with new energy and vitality. More importantly, he says that he is a healthier pastor for his church, husband for his wife, and father for his children. How did he do it? He did not join a high tech gym, count calories, or take part in one of the latest fad diets. He simply shifted his diet away from processed foods, reduced his meat consumption, drank more water, ate as many vegetables and fruits as he wanted, and was never hungry. He walked every day – a simple and sustainable lifestyle challenge.
The answer for you is not a fad diet, deprivation, and an unsustainable workout regimen or weight loss competition. All of these have high failure rates and leave many feeling defeated once the weight returns and diet-related diseases fail to resolve. The answer is first biblical truth, followed by a renewed mind, repentance and then a commitment to study and implement a lifestyle that promotes a healthy body for God’s glory.
What might a healthy lifestyle look like? The average church member consumes more than 63% of their calories from processed, man-made foods, 25% from industrialized animal products and only 12% from plant foods (and this includes French fries and ketchup!), sleeps five to six hours per night, treats fatigue with coffee, is overcome with stress, and is unable to find time to walk or be active. These are the seeds, water, and fertilizer for lifestyle related diseases including heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, autoimmune diseases, asthma, and more than 70% of cancers. Scientific literature confirms that a diet founded on the foods God created for mankind in Genesis—plants (Genesis 1:29)—with smaller amounts of organic, free range animals (Genesis 9:3), combined with clean water, seven to eight hours of sleep each night, stress relief, prayer, gratitude, and daily activity or exercise, not only prevents disease, but can often reverse many of them.
What is the solution to the disease and obesity crisis in the church? The Church!The intrinsic community and power of small groups with personal accountability and support are catalytic sources for change that can fuel grass roots movements. Couple this with solid biblical teachings on stewardship and a return to foods provided by their Creator, and the church could quickly reverse the obesity trend and serve as salt and light to the world. A body alive!
[Scott Stoll, M.D. author of Alive! A Physician’s Biblical & Scientific Guide to Nutrition, is a member of the Whole Foods Scientific Medical Advisory Board, US Bobsled Team Physician, Olympian, Chairman of the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Coordinated Health. For more information, visit www.fullyalivetoday.com.]