I was a fat child, an overweight teen, and an obese young adult. I tried diet after diet, and nothing worked because I never learned how to like vegetables. I tried shake and low fat diets and gained the weight back. Low-carb diets just made me high-crab (grumpy) instead! I spent a lot of money on commercial diet plans to lose only half a pound a week. The problem was that I was raised with sugar four times a day, and with mushy fruit and vegetables. Before we were married, my husband used to joke that my fridge was the place that fruit and vegetables went to die. Nothing worked for me, and I gave up. In psychology, it’s called “learned helplessness” when you try and try and always fail, so give up altogether. Yet I conquered it with God’s help, and want to share with you what I learned about the spirituality of dieting.
Apparently, I’m not alone in my battle of the bulge. Now, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control state that the percent of American adults 20 years and older who are overweight—including obesity—is 69 percent (2011-2012) and the percent of children and teens aged 2-19 who are overweight—including obesity—is approximately 32 percent. The numbers of obesity alone are expected to rise to one-half of all Americans by 2030. As Catholic parents we have the obligation to address this issue head-on in ourselves and with our children. This is both important and urgent!
In my opinion, diet books tend to be written by M.D.’s and nutritionists, indicating a very clear plan of what the body needs to lose weight. However, it’s been my experience that I needed a psychological trick. I had access in my profession to all the medical literature indicating how to lose weight, but nothing worked for me.
It was only after reading the Book of Daniel, Chapter 1 one night during my spiritual prayer and reading time that it occurred to me that what I really needed was a good way to eat vegetables. But I hated vegetables! Who looks forward to sitting down to a plate of celery? Blech. A few days later, I was staring at the dip end-cap in my grocery store, realizing that that was my answer: Make veggies tasty with dips. So, I lost nearly 50 lbs. eating vegetables with dips, without hunger, and lost it twice (once before and once after having a baby.) Dr. Jen’s Dip Diet: The Book of Daniel for Life was born, and now I help others do the same. It’s an ecumenical book and diet plan, but heavily Catholic.
Overeating according to the Church
Gluttony (Latin, gula) can be defined as the overindulgence and overconsumption of anything to the point of waste. According to St. Thomas Aquinas, “The capital sin of gluttony is an inordinate love of the pleasures attached to the eating of food.” I realized that, among other things (e.g., disobedience, theft), the very first sin that caused the Fall of Mankind in the Garden of Eden was a sin of gluttony, according to his definition. St. Aquinas further explains that there is a difference between eating food the body needs to survive, and eating to satisfy the pleasures of appetite. It is the second type of eating that requires our discipline. Aquinas specifies six ways to commit gluttony: eating too soon, too expensively, too much, too eagerly, too daintily (fascinating!), or too wildly. Moreover, gluttony is considered one of the seven deadly or mortal sins because it destroys the life of grace and charity within a person. It is also considered a cardinal or capital sin because it can lead to other sins. As with the other deadly sins, it is a form of idolatry.
I don’t know about you, but if by chance you have packed on the pounds over the years, as I have, then you have probably looked at food in an idol-worshiping kind of way. I know this is displeasing to our Lord. The Bible says in Luke 16:13, “A servant cannot serve two masters. He will hate the first master and love the second, or he will be devoted to the first and despise the second. You cannot serve God and wealth.” I would argue that this applies to eating too. We cannot serve both God and food. When I was eating sugar daily, I was obsessed with it, and it was a false god to me. God is our creator and father, and he wants us for His own.
Fasting and Prayer
“At the time, all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain, yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it.” (Hebrews 12:11). This is so true with dieting.
Transcending the boundaries of religion, prayer and fasting traditionally go hand in hand to deepen one’s relationship with God. On religious fast days, try fasting on fruit, vegetables and protein instead of the traditional bread and water. (I fasted once on bread and water, only to find that I gained a pound!) Fasting paired with prayer is not just for the purpose of losing weight, but rather it helps us focus on God, deepen our relationship with Him, and do penance for wrongdoing. It also causes us to rely on Him for our strength, wisdom, endurance, and other blessings.
Whether fasting is commanded, voluntary, or ritualized, the practice is used predominantly to restore a broken relationship with God, thereby signifying hope.
I once watched a DVD by Fr. Stan Fortuna, CFR, on suffering, entitled, Everybody Got 2 Suffer. This video is life-changing, and truly worth watching. The message is important: Suffering is part of life, and all of us must suffer from time to time. Christians call it “carrying your cross” in reference to the Passion that Jesus bore for us. Suffering is meant to make us grow emotionally, and also grow closer to God, our Creator by relying on Him to help us endure our sufferings. Here is the truth about suffering: although it is a necessary part of life, God never allows us to endure suffering without providing consolations. It’s our job to look for those consolations and express our gratitude to Him for them. Finally, we are redeemed by our suffering.
However, our society does not want any part of it. We are told through books, videos, TV, magazines, and the internet that we are NOT supposed to endure suffering, and that it’s just wrong. Here, take this pill. It will stop the suffering. Here, use this device, because it’ll stop the suffering. Here, buy my expensive product because it’ll stop your suffering. Our modern society says we should be in a constant state of pleasure, with new possessions, new spouses, new cars, and new food. But, is this truly how we were made in God’s eyes? Pleasure is fun, but transient; loving God, doing His will, and practicing healthy discipline is the source of lasting joy. Eating healthy food and having a healthy body for my spouse and family provides lasting joy. I will also tell you that reaching my goal weight has given me lasting joy. I love waking up every day to my new healthy figure.
In order to grow in maturity, we have to face our sufferings, and in terms of weight loss, that means sticking to a diet, and going without some fun things to eat for a while, or possibly a very long time depending on how much you have to lose. No one likes going without, even temporarily. It’s uncomfortable! If you’re at a nice restaurant, you want to order the item that sounds the most delicious. If you find yourself at a birthday party, and everyone else is having cake and ice cream, why can’t you as well?
Archbishop Fulton Sheen used to walk the halls of hospitals, ministering to the suffering, saying “Don’t waste your suffering.” He would urge the hospital patients to offer up their sufferings in conjunction with their prayers to give their prayers more impact. Offer your daily dieting in conjunction with prayer.
Even vegetables involve some small level of suffering: Most veggies are a bit bitter. Once I just accepted that veggies taste a little bit bitter, I was able to start enjoying them more, and began really eating them in volume, especially with the dips since they mask the bitterness. Again, it was important to me to get beyond the idea that everything I put into my mouth has to be at least slightly sweet or salty, and therefore pleasurable. Once I accepted the slight suffering caused by the bitterness, I could actually appreciate the real taste of vegetables. And the dips, dressings, and sauces really help me enjoy them.
In reality, I became overweight because I sought pleasure from food as a consolation, in an attempt to avoid suffering. You could even say that I idolized food. That was pretty irresponsible, considering the fact that it caused me to put on a lot of weight. Food gave me the transient, false peace of the devil instead of the lasting, true peace of God. These are the consequences of not facing our sufferings properly and seeking pleasure instead.
The nice part is this: Dr. Jen’s Dip Diet really does not involve much suffering after all. That is also what makes it more of a lifestyle change toward permanent weight loss.
Repentance is not a one-time event. It is a continual process required for us to grow in holiness. Dieting, and giving up eating in excess is a continual repentant process. It’s like spiritual muscle-building best done daily in order to win the battle and reach goal weight. The daily examination of conscience, in addition to regular Confession aids in this conversion process. The point is that the process of dieting and refusing gluttony makes us ready to receive all the graces that God wants to give us.
Ask the Saints for Help
As there are no particular saints assigned to dieting and weight loss, let me mention other particularly helpful saints: St. Thomas Aquinas, who is believed to have been a large man; St. Martha, the patron of dietitians (although not dieters); St. Raphael the Archangel, whose name means “God heals”; St. Catherine of Siena, who at periods in her life survived on the Eucharist (consecrated Communion wafer) alone; and St. Anthony of Padua, a patron saint of the starving. Saints Michael the Archangel and Benedict are in the forefront of helping us fight temptation. Ask for their intercession on your behalf.
At my goal weight, it’s been a new life for me. I love looking my best and only having to diet to take off the occasional pound gained. I still struggle daily to not idolize food and to keep my appetite in check. I will battle that temptation my whole life. But I do feel that I’ve built up a spiritual muscle of fasting that is invaluable to open the chute between God and me, a portal for His graces and gifts. Know that I will hold you up in prayer for you to have the courage and perseverance to do the same.
Dr. Jennifer Nolan holds a Ph.D. in Psychology from the Department of Cognitive Science at the University of California, Irvine. After teaching at UC Irvine and Loyola Marymount University, she co-founded a stroke and brain injury rehabilitation center, and now consults with clients on dementia, stroke, and ADD. She is a practicing, devout Catholic and homeschooler. After losing nearly 50 lbs., she authored Dr. Jen’s Dip Diet and helps others achieve their weight loss goals.
Copyright 2015 Jennifer Nolan, Ph.D.
Featured photo: “Vegetables” by Enri Endrian (2014) via Flickr. All rights reserved. Modified in PicMonkey for CatholicMom.com.
All other photos courtesy of Jennifer Nolan, Ph.D. All rights reserved.