Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Spirituality and...Dieting?

Many of you, like me, probably looked in the post-holiday mirror and decided to do your annual New Year weight loss attempt. I’m doing well so far (12 pounds in January, woo hoo!: 10 more would put me at my college weight, but I’d be thrilled with at least 5). But as I’m dieting it has hit me that some of the principles of successful dieting actually have a spiritual analogy as well.

Notice that I say successful dieting--by which I mean, a diet where the weight loss comes off and stays off. No surprise to anyone here I’m sure, but I approach dieting as a physicist/engineer: that is, I look at the body as a machine which is converting biomass into heat energy, and storing excess. So my dieting method is based around that physics based worldview.

This physics-ish approach leads me to three key principles of how I diet, which I would like to share (as they will tie into our spiritual discussion at the end):


1. Your body’s nature is to betray you.

Your goal as a dieter is to lose weight. This is good because Americans are (as we have all heard ad naseum) far too heavy, far too diabetic, and far too likely to die of heart disease and other weight-related issues.

So why is dieting so hard? Well, for one thing, your body is designed to betray your plans.

Modern Americans are one of the rare societies in all of history who can eat excess food for extended periods of time. We have tasty food which is readily available and inexpensive. This is extremely rare, not just historically but even around the world today.

Our Designer knew that most people would go hungry for long periods, and being a wise Designer decided that our bodies should try and accumulate extra food and store it up for the hungry times. (This is why you have a natural desire for sweets and carb-heavy foods, which are easily convertible into fats for later usage, by the way.) Everything you eat which is indigestible passes right through, but everything which is digestible and isn’t converted into energy is stored as fat.

So when you try and lose weight and burn fat, your own body is trying to fight against you--it is in its nature not to lose weight, but to pack on a few extra pounds for future storage. Only in the modern, wealthy Western culture has this become a health issue.

2. Hard work (exercise) is healthy for you, but it’s not going to help you lose weight.

I know this seems shocking, but you have to think it through. Everything you eat has a certain amount of potential energy within it. If you eat indigestible things they pass right through you with no harm done. If you eat digestible things, though, your stomach (engine) starts breaking it down and converting it into a usable form of energy. This amount of available energy is measured in calories. (Technically, kilocalories, but we’ll stick with the conventional term from here forward).

Some of this energy is used immediately--you have a basic metabolic rate that keeps you alive, controlling your breathing, heartbeats, etc. In addition, some heat is lost to outside air (which is why you have to eat more high-calorie foods in cold climates than warm, because you vent more energy to the outside air). So some of this available energy (calories) is used up as you go through your day; the rest is stored as fat for future needs, to keep you alive in times of starvation.

When you exercise, you use up some of this energy. But it actually takes a lot of exercise, at a very high rate of aerobics, to burn many calories. Take the popular workout program p90x, which is highly intense and takes about 1-1 ½ hours each day to do. The average p90x workout if done completely and intensely (and most people can’t do that) burns 650 calories. Treadmills, bikes, and other equipment burn even less (although often their unreliable measurement methods give the impression that you are more successful than you really are).

If you think 650 calories sounds like a lot…you’re wrong. It’s 1/5 of a pound of your fat. To put it another way, that’s two vanilla lattes from Starbucks. Or one Big Mac. Or one fast food kids meal. Or two slices of pizza.

Let’s take a simple example. Say you want to lose 3 pounds per week, which is aggressive to do and keep off, but possible. This means that, during the week, you must use 10,500 calories of energy more than your body takes in, or 1,500 calories per day. So if your particular body needs 2,000 calories to live on today, and you eat 2,400 calories on average (which is how you got overweight to begin with), you are currently bringing in 400 calories more than you need to live. Now, to hit your weight loss goal, you need to end up at 2,000-1,500 = 500 net calories each day. But you are already eating 400 calories extra, so now you need to burn 1,500 + 400 = 1,900 calories through exercise. So what do you need to do? THREE HOURS OF P90X, with no breaks or lowering of intensity. Good luck with that. Impossible.

Exercise is simply not a realistic method of losing weight--as everyone already actually knows, for they try and fail at it dozens of times in their lives!

Does that mean exercise is bad? No, it’s great. Exercise increases your lifespan significantly. Exercise makes you look better and more attractive (not flabby but firm). Exercise gives you self-confidence. Exercise makes your body run more efficiently and releases all of the right natural chemicals, helping avoid diabetes and other dangerous diseases.

Exercise is excellent for you...but adding this extra “work” does not get you closer to the goal of losing weight. (Ditto for methods which allegedly “trick” your metabolism into burning extra calories off. Doesn’t work in the long run, your body adjusts and you’ll see your calorie intake increase accordingly.)

3. All that really matters is: am I using the right fuel in the right amounts?

The body is, as I mentioned, a very efficient heat engine. (Far more thermally efficient than our best generators, in case you are curious.) So just like the engine in your car, you need to put the right fuel into it, in the right amounts, in order to lose weight.

Your body needs food energy in order to stay healthy and fit and live a long life. How much it needs is based upon your size and lifestyle.

So dieting is really not that complex. Everything you eat is either digestible or indigestible. If indigestible, it will pass through your system with no impact to your weight. If digestible, then it will be converted to energy.

If you eat and convert more food into energy than you use in a given day, it will be stored as fat. There are no tricks or hints, no other way to get it out of your body. If you pour more gas into your gas tank than you burn by running the engine…then guess what? The extra gas will sit there, waiting on you for another day.

So when you diet, there are really three key principles:

A. Make sure you are letting enough indigestible stuff pass right on through.

High fiber foods like salads, fruit, vegetables, rice cakes, and fiber cereal/fiber bars pass right on through the body. These are “free” calories--everything fiber just cannot be digested. So fill up on them! If you are getting a sandwich and you are hungry, pile it high with lettuce, onions, and tomatoes (which are indigestible), and skip the mayo and cheese (which convert to fats VERY efficiently).

Eating these types of foods barely even count as eating--they can fill your stomach up and take away your hunger, but you net out at virtually no calories. If you need a snack, make it one of these.

In other words, you want your food intake to have fiber so that it passes right through you instead of sticking around and requiring energy to burn.

B. Make sure you are getting enough of the right kind of foods, in the right amounts.

Your body needs vitamins from protein as well as vegetables and carbs, so don’t do fad diets like liquid only or Atkins. They may help you appear to lose weight short term, but it won’t stay off and you’ll get sick trying it.

Instead, figure up how many calories you are allowed to have, and make sure you are eating a balanced meal that does not exceed this amount.

Generally for me, this looks like: a high-fiber breakfast cereal with skim milk in the morning; a light lunch of soup/salad; rice cakes or fruit as snacks if I need them; and any kind of dinner my wife makes (fried pork chops, chicken, mac and cheese, whatever is in the Pioneer Woman Cookbook). Because of all the fiber from earlier in the day I am not all that hungry at dinner so I can keep it to reasonable serving sizes: one plate of food, not 2-3 plates like I have when I don't eat breakfast or much fiber.

C. Make sure you are avoiding the wrong kind of foods.

We have gotten really good at making delicious food which creates WAY more energy potential in our bodies (calories) than we can actually burn. As a result, weight loss is impossible if taking on these kinds of foods.

This includes desserts, or fried foods, etc.—whatever puts you above your calorie amount. For many people it is “empty” calories: things like non-diet sodas, alcohol, or juices all are able to be converted to calorie energy in your body but do not fill up your stomach and reduce hunger at all. By comparison, drinking diet sodas or water take care of your thirst but are indigestible and pass directly through the system without adding weight. Small amounts of this "junk" food is fine, but it gives you nothing of nutritional value and simply clogs up your body with fat which later requires even more aggressive dieting to remove.


So what does this have to do with your spiritual life? Well I would argue that just as God designed your body to run as a heat engine, so too does your soul follow these principles. The same general principles apply to being spiritually mature as apply to losing weight.

To wit:

1. Your body’s nature is to betray you.

Your body is cursed by inheriting Adam’s genes and being cast out into the wilderness of this world. Just as your body physically creates desires in you (“sweet tooth”) to go out and eat excess to store up fat, so too does your body physically create a desire in you to disobey God’s law and sin.

Your flesh does not want you to be saved. It does not want you to be spiritually mature. It wants you to be enslaved in lust and gain the excess weight of the world, rather than being lean in a worldly sense and growing strong spiritually.

Becoming spiritually mature requires just as much denial of self as losing weight requires it: your flesh is going to constantly try to lead you into sin and disobedience.

Often I hear people (not just young Christians either) asking, “I know Christianity says X is wrong, but I just don’t FEEL like it’s wrong.” What they really mean is—their body wants them to do it, and they are failing to be able to resist it. Just because something feels natural does not mean it is right.

None of us will be perfect, of course—just as no dieter can resist every piece of cake—but it is just as possible to develop spiritual self-discipline as it is for a dieter to develop self-discipline. What it is NOT, however, is natural. Your body will want many things which are unhealthy.

2. Hard work (Christian service) is healthy for you, but it’s not going to help you grow spiritually mature.

As we showed, exercise has a lot of benefits to your health, but it isn’t a way of losing weight. Christian works of service are the same way.

Just like exercise, serving others is extremely healthy: you’ll be happier, you’ll be (spiritually) healthier, you’ll feel better, you’ll be more efficient in your spiritual walk. Your spirit is made to do good works just like your body is made to exercise: and just like failure to exercise leads to sickness and muscle atrophy, so too does lack of spiritual exercise (good works) make you spiritually sick and your walk with God atrophied.

However…good works are not a part of becoming spiritually mature, any more than exercise makes a bit of impact in weight loss.

Protestants love to point out that we are saved by grace not by works. But then somehow we think that works are the thing that makes us mature after salvation! It is as though the Christian path is to climb a mountain, and we think that faith shows us the first step, but works has to do the rest.

Far from it! As my pastor has said, “You couldn’t pay to get salvation, and you can’t pay to keep it.” Salvation came by faith alone, and so does spiritual maturity. The Bible tells us that God will not abandon the good work He has started in us (Phil 1:6), and also that we already have all the qualities of Godliness and God will lead us to exhibit them as we grow closer to Him (2 Pet 1:3).

It is our faith which starts our worldly loss, and our faith which continues it. Works are healthy for us and we should do them--we will be glad we did, and others (like God) will be pleased when they look at the results! But we do not grow spiritually mature from them.

3. All that really matters is: am I using the right fuel in the right amounts?

Just like with our physical bodies, all that really matters to us as we try to grow more mature is: are we getting the right fuel in us, in the right amounts?

A. Make sure you are letting enough indigestible stuff pass right on through.

The world is full of things which are of no consequence to the kingdom of God: temporal politics, office drama, celebrity gossip, television shows, etc. This stuff is indigestible to the Spirit.

So make sure that you are letting enough of this pass right on through you. Don’t sit there and think and meditate on these things, as they are adding no energy to your soul. When you partake of them, let them move through your body so you spend little to none of your energy on them.

Make my motto, your motto: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, love.” If it’s not important to God’s Kingdom, then you shouldn’t be wasting your energy on it.

The politics of this world are just spiritual fiber: let them pass on through to the toilet, where they belong.

B. Make sure you are getting enough of the right kind of spiritual foods, in the right amounts.

Paul compares a new Christian to a baby, but as the Christian grows up it is time to get off of mom’s milk and start eating spiritual food (1 Cor 3:2). I have written about this before, and I encourage you to read the article.

But the main point is this: you need to be getting fed things which are spiritually healthy. As I said in that article, based on Acts 2:42-43, your church should be feeding you in four ways:

1. Learning the doctrines of the apostles (the New Testament teachings, also summarized in early Christian creeds);
2. Fellowship with other believers;
3. Sharing in the Lord’s Supper regularly; and
4. Praying together.

Every church has a program saying that they do those things. Almost none are doing them. Seriously: almost none teach meat today.

Most churches either talk about topics of the day (like politics--which, see A above, have no place among us), or they teach you “self-help” messages to try and ease your life. This doesn’t count as New Testament teaching, even if they quote NT passages to do it!

No, learning the doctrines of the apostles means learning what they taught people in Acts and the NT letters: learning that Jesus lived and died and rose again; learning that Jesus was truly God-in-flesh; learning about grace and law; learning about the Kingdom which is to come. These are the things the apostles cared about, and the things we should be talking about.

I’m just not sure how you can do that in a topical based church. At least some amount of exegetical and contextual preaching, it seems to me, is critical to understanding what the apostles taught.

C. Make sure you are avoiding the wrong kind of foods.

Choosing a good church isn’t just about making sure they occasionally feed you the right things, it is also about making sure that they AREN’T feeding you the wrong things.

Many churches are teaching poisonous sermons today: teaching that you have to do certain good works to be justified in God’s eyes, or that you need not “really” believe that all the Bible stuff is actually true, or that if you’d only give more to the church God would sure bless you! Other churches are teaching junk food: that the Bible is a self-help manual to help you balance your checkbook, or lose weight, or teach you how to succeed as a manager at an office complex.

In either case, these are the wrong kinds of foods, foods which may give you the pleasures of spiritual eating, but because they are junk food, they actually add to your worldly weight rather than subtract from it. Ultimately, then, they battle against your goal of losing yourself and growing more spiritually mature.


Do you see, then, how spiritual dieting is just as important—and oh so similar—to physical dieting? The rules are the same: you need to watch what you eat, and don’t count on hard work to make up for letting bad things into your body.

Take care of those few things, and your spirit can be lean, healthy, and pleasing both to you and to God.

PS—I have a sneaky suspicion that this article, now over 3,000 words, was in dire need of an editor. Oh well. If you read this far, you obviously thought it was worth sticking through!


  1. As usual your gift for making analogies is quite enviable!

    Dieting is mostly an intellectual exercise for me since I've always been a skinny dude (though there has been a history of diabetes in my family) but I aim to eat and live healthy anyway.

    I found Gary Taubes' book Why We Get Fat to be the best thing I've ever read on the topic of dieting, a blend of good science and an expose of how big agribusiness has manipulated the government into proscribing bad nutrition (the abysmal food pyramid, which makes simple carbs like bread and pasta the basis of your diet, is a horrible, horrible idea!)

    I'm convinced that something close to the Paleo diet is the way to go, not the least because there are a lot of people online who get good results and vouch for it (the great thing about the internet age is that it's easy to check the claims of some practical idea - you're not reliant on biased commercials on TV anymore.) Lots of meat, vegetables, and eggs, reduced wheat calories. It's worked well for me, though people in Japan are amazed that I don't want to eat a giant bowl of rice with every meal.

  2. A few months ago my Grandfather was telling me about some reading he had been doing into the idea that "processed wheats" and things of that sort were big players in the increase in weight in the US. From everything I heard about it, and read, it seems to plumb well with what you might expect. The increase of fatty/processed food has pretty well marked the increase of weight gain. The person who was "exposing" this idea (I forget his name & would have to ask or look him up) advocated a cutting out of all processed foods, particularly most wheat-based foods, would remedy the larger problem of over-weight... at least on a personal level. Weight has never really been a big issue for me until the past year or two when I let it "get out of hand". I'm 6'5", usually am around 200lbs but now I'm 215; I need to be at 190. When I'm "being good" I do yogurt w/ granola for breakfast, oatmeal for lunch, and salad for dinner. That typically gets broken up by Kryptonite (a.k.a Whataburger... for those of you deprived of this luxury, its like In & Out Burger... but better). Not to mention the weekly "tradition" my wife and I have of eating dinner at Chick-fil-a before we go to a worship service on Wednesdays... any man who can stand in CFA many times and always order the salad in spite of the smell of a chicken sammich is a FAR stronger man than I. LOL