Tootie Fields once said, “I’ve been on a diet for two weeks and all I’ve lost is two weeks!”
There is a common pattern of “yo-yo” dieting – you’re on a diet . . . off a diet . . . on a diet . . . . Oh, wait, you’re off again; it’s hard to keep track. Our culture is obsessed with food. We can walk into a gas station or an office supply store and purchase food. It is everywhere! We eat in our cars, on the bus, on our bikes, and in front of our computers. Sometimes we’re eating and forget that we’re doing so.
The idea of eating in a balanced way and living a life in balance seems like a chore. We don’t even know where to begin. And it does not help that we have a multi-billion dollar diet industry working hard to “help us”: “Eat this.” “No don’t eat that – it contains carbohydrates.” “Should I use the pink, the yellow, or the white sweetener packet?” “Is this a low-fat food?” “What should I eat?” Something as basic as choosing what and when to eat can become an overwhelming task. This is not a new problem, but a new twist on an old one. For centuries using food in the wrong way has been a temptation. So what do we do?
Our faith can guide us by teaching us to eat in a spiritually minded manner. In living the Christian life, everything we do should be done for the glory of God. A spiritual father once said to me that our senses were given to us to commune with the Divine. This statement – full of wisdom – really got me thinking. We use our senses literally all the time. So, what are we taking in with our eyes? When we watch a movie or read a book, are we utilizing our sense of vision to commune with the Divine? Or are the choices we make causing us to draw away from Him? What about our eating? Is our time spent eating glorifying God?
What are we eating? And how are we eating? Do we even taste our foods? And are we choosing real foods for that matter?
The current food industries’ ways and marketing strategies confuse us. Twizzlers, Cheetos, and Splenda: Are these really foods? Is there such a thing as fat-free whipped cream? Should we be drinking a beverage that is a glowing bright blue color? In Holy Scripture we read:
He causes the grass to grow for the cattle,
And vegetation for the service of man,
That he may bring forth food from the earth,
And wine that makes glad the heart of man,
Oil to make his face shine,
And bread which strengthens man’s heart.
Psalm 103 (104):14-15 (New King James version).
Key points from the teachings of the Early Church Fathers can serve as guidelines for our modern eating habits. These principles from the ancient days can help us eat in a faith-based manner.
Over the years the food industry has changed dramatically. Every time we enter a grocery store, we see new products on the shelves. We can purchase food at drive-thrus. And we are able to eat certain foods three years later because of the preservatives they contain. Moreover, we can consume foods that are calorie-free, yet still taste sweet. These changes in the food industry affect so many aspects of our relationship with food.
The saints, who paid attention to their needs and wants, share this common statement: Very little food is needed for satisfaction. It is hard for us, who live in the age of the Super Size and the Big Gulp, to determine the amount of food and drink that our bodies actually need. Still, we can learn about healthy portions and how we can control food consumption.
It is important to begin by emphasizing that our bodies do not need a lot of food. What they do need are “real” foods. In the Psalm above, we note how God provides us with foods that our body needs. These foods are always present in His creation. Our bodies need the nutrients that are found in primary foods such as grains, eggs, nuts, meats, fish, fruits, vegetables, dairy, and oils. These nutrients will keep us satisfied. And a little will go a long way.
Here is a tip: If God made it, then it is a real food. If the food contains many synthetic, artificial and unnecessary ingredients, this food can be considered an impostor, and we do well to remember that God did not create us with the physiology to digest such impostors. Consumption of these fake foods can lead to unnecessary weight gain and chronic health problems. In the book Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain, the Elder states: “Today people make illicit and deceitful businesses. However, they should not falsify food substances, because they become the cause of harming people’s health.”
To illustrate our point, consider the ingredients below and determine what “food” they compose:
Corn Syrup Solids
Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil
Sodium Caseinate (A Milk Derivative)
If you guessed that the ingredients compose a “Non-Dairy Creamer,” you would be correct. God, in his infinite wisdom, did not intend for us to ingest these synthetics. Instead, He gave us cows. From this creature we can gain milk and cream. Hence we can use half-and-half in our coffee, tea, and cooking.
People have often experienced physical problems because they ate fake foods, foods that affect the bodies’ ability to function properly. These include digestive problems, diabetes, and conditions such as attention deficit disorder. Why is this? One would suspect it is because many of the fake foods are filled with harmful additives that our bodies were not intended to digest.
The Venerable Saint Simeon, the New Theologian, points out in his writings that “illnesses are frequently born in many from a disorderly and irregular diet.” We also see that as a result of consuming food impostors, people are left feeling hungry and experience trouble in sensibly losing weight. In the case of artificial sweeteners, for example, the very chemical design of the product causes a person to crave more sweets.
A good rule of eating should lead one to examine the ingredients listed on food labels. They should be read with care. If the list of ingredients sounds like a chemistry project, one should avoid eating or drinking the fake food or beverage. Remember to read the ingredient list; avoid purchasing the item if it has any of the following:
High fructose corn syrup
Artificial sweeteners (such as Aspartame, Sucrolose)
Artificial colors (such as red dye 40 or yellow lake 5)
Partially or fully hydrogenated oils
Think about it: to make bread you need four ingredients: flour, water, yeast, and salt. Preservatives and additives injected into foods are not necessary components of the baking process and can be harmful to our bodies. As a result of consuming predominately real foods, foods that are naturally derived from God’s creation, you will start to realize that your body needs less food to be satisfied.
Additional writings of the Holy Fathers predominately found in the Philokalia caution us that “our bellies by themselves almost never know moderation.” This should make us reflect on our eating habits. Think about why you tend to eat. Do you eat because you are stressed, tired, bored, emotional, or perhaps just out of habit?
Many of us need to overcome the temptation to eat mindlessly. Becoming aware of what motivates our eating can help us to develop strategies to prevent unnecessary eating. It can be a struggle. If so, as with any struggle, we must first turn to our Heavenly Father in prayer. We need to repent and turn away from the sin of using food improperly. Then we need to set up a plan to turn us away from falling into the sin of overindulgence.
Many times we end up replacing a spiritual need with a physical satisfaction. Eating often gives pleasure. And the enjoyment of food is not a bad thing, for we know that every good thing is from above. We need, nonetheless, to remember to keep food in its proper context. People will often say that carbohydrates are “bad,” but truly carbohydrates in their essence are not bad. It is what we do with these carbohydrates that can make them “bad.” It has been said over and over again: too much of any food item can be harmful to our health.
The writings of St. Gregory of Sinai in the Philokalia provides us with these directions: “The measure of partaking of food that is free from sin and pleasing to God has three degrees: abstinence, adequacy, and satiety. To abstain means to remain a little hungry after eating: to eat adequately means neither to feel hungry nor weighed down. But eating beyond satiety is the door to gluttony through which lust comes in.” Metropolitan Gregory Postaikov of St. Petersburg in his How to Live a Holy Life quotes St. John Chrysostom’s guideline for observing moderation of food consumption: “Eat just enough to alleviate your hunger.”
Taking note of your actions – and maybe even writing down some observations that you make about your eating habits – can give you insight into designing a plan that will help you stand strong during the temptation to misuse food. Proper eating does require prayer, mindfulness, and gratitude.
You’re probably thinking: All these ideas sound fabulous, but how do I apply them? Start by listening to your body. We feel satisfied with the amount of food we take in, not in our stomach, but in our brain. It takes at least fifteen to twenty minutes for our stomach to send a message to the brain indicating that we have eaten enough. So the faster we eat, the more we eat. Try at your next meal to take at least fifteen minutes to eat your food. Work on slowing down your eating pace.
If you have to eat a meal by yourself, have some spiritual reading material with you at the table. Read about the life of a saint or a spiritually edifying magazine. Focus on reading for a bit, then taking a bite of food. Take your time. Appreciate this time with the Lord. Taste your food. Slowing down your eating pace is a great technique to help with controlling how much you consume.
St. John Cassian’s writings on eating (found in the Philokalia) provide us with wisdom on how to deal with the struggles of misusing food when he says: “I shall speak first about control of the stomach, the opposite to gluttony, and about how to fast and what and how much to eat. I shall say nothing on my own account, but only what I have received from the Holy Fathers. They have not given us only a single rule for fasting or a single standard and measure for eating, because not everyone has the same strength; age, illness or delicacy of body create differences. But they have given us all a single goal: to avoid over-eating and the filling of our bellies.... A clear rule for self-control handed down by the Fathers is this: stop eating while still hungry and do not continue until you are satisfied.... As I said, the Fathers have handed down a single basic rule of self-control: ‘Do not be deceived by the filling of the belly’ (Proverbs 24:15), or be led astray by the pleasure of the palate. It is not only the variety of foodstuffs that kindles the fiery darts of unchastity, but also their quantity.”
When you take your time with your food you are able to recognize when that “over-the-edge bite” is going to be the next bite. We all know this bite. It is the bite that officially ruins the meal. We leave the table with a belly ache, and we feel sluggish, lethargic and uncomfortable. It is hard for us to focus on prayer or our daily work when we are feeling weighed down and overly satisfied. Think about it: Do we enjoy food because of the way it tastes or because we love that feeling of being uncomfortably full?
Bishop Platon of Kostroma provides us with a great exercise for mealtime: “At dinner picture to yourself the image of our heavenly Father opening His hand in order to feed you; never omit your prayer before you eat; and leave some of your food for the poor. After dinner consider yourself one of the five thousand who were miraculously fed by Jesus Christ; thank Him from your heart and pray that He not leave you without heavenly food, His word and His most precious Body and Blood.”1
Start by creating structure around your meal time. Slow down your eating pace. Pray before and after the meal. Ask for God’s blessing and prepare yourself to be attentive to share in this food He has provided to you. You may even want to beautify the area in which you are eating. Clear away the clutter, light a candle, or place some flowers on the table. Make mealtime a special time. And get the kids involved.
Many today feel their health could benefit from a little bit of weight loss. A proven and successful – even healthy – weight-loss technique is to reduce caloric intake. Here is a good example, taken from Greek Monastery Cookery by Archimandrite Dositheos, about when he was a novice monk:
When it was time for dining, he [Abba Dorotheos] said to him: “Eat and get full. Then just tell me how much you ate.” When he ate, he came up to him saying: “I ate one-bread- and-a-half.” (The weight of one-bread was four liters.) Then he said to him, “Do you feel well, Dositheos?” He answered: “Yes, master, I feel well.” He asked him: “Maybe you feel hungry?” He answered: “No, master, I don’t feel hungry.” Then he said to him, “Good. Then from now on, eat one-bread-and- a-quarter of the second bread. Break the other quarter into two, eat one piece, and leave the other.” He did as he was told. Then he asked him again: “Are you hungry, Dositheos?” He answered, “Yes master, I’m a bit hungry.” A few days later, he asked him: “How do you feel, Dositheos? Are you still hungry?” He answered: “No, master. I feel very well, thanks to your prayers.” He said to him, “Then omit the first piece of the quarter, too.” He did again as he was told. Again, a few days later, he asked him: “How do you feel now? Are you hungry?” He answered: “I feel well, master.” He said to him: “Break the other quarter of the bread into two. Eat one piece, and leave the other.” Again, he did as he was told. So, with God’s help, he gradually came down from six liters to eight ounces only.
From this example, we learn that if we reduce our food intake in small increments – as opposed to all at once – it can make the difference with weight loss. By decreasing the amount of food we consume, we are creating a calorie deficit in our own bodies. By eating less (ingesting fewer calories), sensible weight loss can and will occur.
Do not make massive reductions at one time but do it slowly. Over time you train your body to be satisfied with less food. So at your next meal decrease the portion you usually tend to serve yourself. Focus on eating slowly to allow your body to process the food. Assess how you feel. Did you take that over-the-edge bite or did you eat just the right amount? It takes practice. But the more time you spend focusing on listening to your body, the less often you will notice that you take that over-the-edge bite.
As the writing from St. John Cassian above illustrated, we all need a different amount of food for a variety of reasons. One of those reasons is our exercise patterns. For example, I am quite sure I do not need to eat as much food as an athlete training for the Olympics. So there is no one prescription for weight loss that fits all. As was also mentioned above, however, we know that for an individual to lose weight, focusing on reducing food intake is a key factor. So, start by making changes in your eating. Incorporate one change at a time, and once it has become part of your life, add another. This will help to make it a permanent practice.
We read in Holy Scripture how St. Paul ate for physical strength before he started to teach. We know that food is a source of energy for us to perform our daily tasks. But we also read in Holy Scripture that Jesus said: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God.” (Luke 4:4).
Blessed is God, who is merciful unto us and nourishes us from His bounteous gifts by His grace and compassion, always, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.
Rita Madden, MPH, RD
Program Director for Mediterranean Wellness
St. George Orthodox Cathedral, Oakland (Pittsburgh)
1 From Daily Prayers for Orthodox Christians (Norcross, Georgia: St. Mary’s of Egypt Orthodox Church, 1997), p. 103.