Bible Belt-Tightening An expanding flock of Christian weight-loss programs helps members shed pounds and hopelessness by gaining a new appreciation of prayer.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The good man eats to live, while the evil man lives to eat." Proverbs 13: 25

Chris Griffin had never felt her stomach growl. As a child, she cleaned her dinner plate just as her father ordered. As a young mother of three living in rural Maryland, she downed pizza slices and Hershey's chocolate to stave off cabin fever. And, as an adoptive mother of a severely handicapped son, she drowned her suffering in hot fudge sundaes.

The 5-foot-7 Reistertown woman got up to 185 pounds, developed diabetes and had to go on medication. Then last year, she found a solution to her lifelong weight struggle. She lost nearly 40 pounds, and she still eats pizza, chocolate and ice cream.

The difference: She prays away the hunger, the addiction, the worry.

She joined a new Bible-based weight-loss program through her church.

"Whether our obsession is eating, smoking or drinking, it's like filling a God-sized hole in your life with something other than God," says Griffin, 46. "I needed to shift my focus away from food and give it over to the Lord."

A secretary at Trinity Assembly of God in Lutherville, Griffin tells her story at a table in Trinity's Fellowship Hall. Sugar-cookie crumbs from the previous night's church dinner are ground into the blue-gray carpet under her feet. The Wednesday night meal was a heaping plate of lasagna, salad and pastries.

"There are a lot of things that are considered too worldly, but for Christians, food is not one," she says. "It's what Christians do when they get together. Other people drink, we eat. And a few of us are quite big."

So many, in fact, that a Purdue University study published in March found that religious people are more likely to be overweight than nonreligious people. Purdue sociology professor Kenneth Ferraro said he was surprised by his findings -- he had figured that churchgoers were more focused on healthful living.

"They've cut back on a lot of other things -- they are less likely to smoke, less likely to consume drugs and alcohol," says Ferraro. "But they haven't woken up to the issue of excessive body weight."

Gwen Shamblin, founder of the weight program Griffin joined, puts it this way: "It makes sense. We know it's wrong to go to bed with the man next door, it's wrong getting plastered at the bar down the street, but eating? That can't be wrong."

Yet American churches are virtually silent on the issue. And that's "despite a biblical dictate for moderation in all things," Ferraro says. "In the Book of Proverbs, gluttony is listed with drunkenness as a sign of moral weakness, but few religious groups have any proscriptions against overeating."

That may still be true in many pulpits, but the all-American craze to lose weight is coming to the sanctuary. Christian diet workshops -- a combination of inspirational audio and video tapes, books, prayer meetings and Bible studies -- are multiplying like Jesus-blessed loaves and fishes. Two highly publicized programs, and a plethora of smaller ones, are spreading by word of mouth among church members in the Baltimore area and across the country.

Shamblin's program, The Weigh Down Workshop, is one of the fastest-spreading. It has grown from a handful of 12-week seminars in 1992 to 19,400 workshops in 73 countries, Weigh Down representatives say. They have been adding 250 new classes a week since January. Shamblin's book, "The Weigh Down Diet" (1997, $21, Doubleday), is a national best seller on the CBA (Christian Booksellers Association) list.

"People are really finding deliverance in this program," says spokeswoman Lyn Walker, at Weigh Down headquarters in Franklin, Tenn. She says she has lost 85 pounds and is now in the 140s.

Another program, First Place, founded in Houston in 1980, has spread to 12,000 churches. Tapping biblical inspiration and the power of prayer, it has helped 500,000 people lose weight, its representatives say. Spokeswoman Sheila Robbins says she has lost 150 pounds, and now weighs about 170. "God has taken presence over that area of our lives."

Seeking change

For more and more Christians, spiritual factors are critical in the search for physical health. There's a vegetarian-based Hallelujah Diet, the Prayer Walking health regimen and Step Forward, a 12-step program for Christians who overeat. There are also dozens of books with titles like "Health Begins in Him" by nutritionist Terry Dorian; "Lay Aside the Weight" by preacher T.D. Jake; or "Faithfully Fit: A 40-Day Devotional Plan to End the Yo-Yo Lifestyle of Chronic Dieting" by self-described Christian wives and mothers Claire Cloninger and Laura Barr.

Chris Griffin and her husband, Stan, know all about the lose-weight-gain-weight tug of war. They are both from families of big people. The scales in relatives' bathrooms may tip 300 pounds. For more than 20 years, Stan, 51, has been on one diet or another. At 5-foot-9, he was 225 pounds and on blood-pressure medication.

Chris says she has been dieting for 15 years. "I got in the habit of eating when I felt bad, of eating when I felt good, of eating to eat," she says.

When she started Weigh Down last June, she didn't tell Stan right away. "I told him I was going to a Bible study. I wasn't about to say I was starting another diet plan and let the world know I failed again."

Then one day over the summer, he noticed she was eating less. "I'd eat a half a cheeseburger and he'd ask, 'Are you OK?' " she remembers. "I'd say, 'I'm just not hungry.' "

A generally happy couple, they say their marriage improved after both joined Weigh Down's seminars. "I started jumping in to help clean up the kitchen. I don't know why," says Stan, who works 60 hours a week at his automotive shop, Griffin Service Center, in Randallstown.

Chris sits next to her husband of 28 years at the spotless kitchen table in their Reisterstown home. He has lost nearly 30 pounds since September and gone off his blood-pressure medicine. Says Chris: "When you feel good about yourself, you're less grumpy with the world."

No food is bad

The keys to the Weigh Down program are to learn to recognize when you are truly hungry, not eating out of boredom or stress, or "head hungry," to stop when you're full and to ask God for help when you get tempted.

Shamblin, who earned a master's degree in food and nutrition from the University of Tennessee and is a registered dietitian in that state, teaches that it's God's own method of biofeedback.

Other Christian-diet programs, like First Place, are similar to Weight Watchers and follow menus of balanced diets and restricted calories.

"I'm like an alcoholic," says Robbins, the First Place spokeswoman. "I just cannot have a piece of candy, take a first bite and say I'm not going to eat any more."

Shamblin, 43, says no food is bad, and God loves chocolate as much as he loves broccoli. "Look at the animals," she explained in her rapid-fire drawl from her Tennessee headquarters, on a break from a "20/20" interview. "Animals don't have to get on a calculator to calculate fat grams. You don't see some cows wanting pizza and some wanting plankton out of the ocean. They all want grass. God has programmed them to like grass."

Likewise, she says, people ought to be able to eat what they want to, but not overindulge.

Now, when the Griffins eat out, they split meals. A Sunday dinner of catfish from The Cracker Barrel will feed both, with enough for one meal left over. When they say grace, they not only thank God for the food, they ask for the strength to not eat too much of it.

Chris says the weight loss is really a by-product of her renewed focus on God. She takes more time for daily Scripture readings, fellowship and prayer. "I know that God loves you if you're 300 pounds or 100 pounds," she says.

When Chris struggles at work, she and a co-worker, Linda Hartman, sneak into an empty church office to pray. Or they flip to one of the 120-plus Bible verses that relate to food.

Hartman, also 46, started the program last fall after she lost 54 pounds on Weight Watchers, then got "tired of eating carrots and celery." But on Weigh Down, she gained 30 pounds back. She says she's had trouble stopping midmeal, and doesn't think eating just anything one wants is the key.

"It hasn't worked yet," says Hartman, who at 5-foot-5 weighs 160 pounds. "Like the Bible says, we reap what we sow and I didn't sow well, so I reaped the extra pounds. But even though I've gained, this has shown me where the problem lies. It's a spiritual battle."

Overeating as sin

The Christian diet movement actually dates back at least to the 1950s, when Presbyterian minister Charlie W. Shedd lost 100 pounds and in 1957 wrote an inspirational book titled "Pray Your Weight Away."

Over the years, there's been a rise and fall of groups like Overeaters Victorious, Believercise and Jesus is the Weigh, and books like "Slim for Him."

Decades ago, the focus was that overeating was a Sin, with a capital S. Today the approach is more therapeutic, and apparently more palatable.

The Christian diet movement has launched more than a few theological debates. The Bible-based seminars are welcomed by those who say churches often overlook members' daily-life concerns, and rejected by those who say it's less-than-holy to focus on vanity.

"People who are religious want their faith to encompass all elements of their lives, but this is somewhat risky," says Marie Griffith, who teaches religion at Northwestern University and has written extensively on Christian diet programs. "The message is that God wants you to be skinny, to be beautiful for all the reasons that society pushes us to be thin. I'd like to see a stronger critique of these ideals."

Chris Griffin says people may say they don't care about appearance, but they do. "We see how men react to slim, attractive women, and quite honestly it's the same in the church as it is in the world. It's not that I want to be a sexpot, but I want to look nice."

And Shamblin says her program has also helped anorexics and bulimics break their obsessions.

Though her brochures show "before" and "after" pictures of success stories, she says the program's focus is not on thinness, it's on God's jealousy. "God is hurting," she says. "He is the one that is jealous of the refrigerator. All of our love and happiness is going into a pan of brownies. It's unrequited love."

A growing industry

There's also a debate about mixing commercialism and ministry. The American Dietetic Association estimates that Americans spend $33 billion a year on weight-control products. Christian diet groups are a relatively small share of that market, but it's growing.

The Weigh Down Workshop is a profit-making enterprise. It costs $103 for the first 12-week session, including workbooks and tapes, $55 for the second round, and free for the rest. First Place, which is not for profit, costs between $60 and $70 for the first 12-week course, and $15 for repeaters.

Christians say they're seeking out these programs partly because they like to frequent like-minded Christian-oriented services. Plus, they avoid the "meat market" environment of health clubs. To many, this is another avenue in their journey toward God. "God works through weight, he works through just about anything in our lives," says Linda Jordan, who leads a Weigh Down program at Liberty Reformed Presbyterian Church in Owings Mills.

But what if it doesn't work? Does it mean you're a failure twice over -- in controlling your earthly desires and in strengthening your relationship with God?

One Monday evening at Jessup Baptist Church, a small television sits beside the altar. A white bathroom scale rests on the floor next to the crushed-velvet kneeler. In a video playing on the TV, Shamblin is sitting on a couch at a fireplace, dressed in a red sweater and jeans, her feet tucked under her.

About a dozen people sit in pews listening to Shamblin tell them how God can set them free from their battle with food.

"Oh God, how ultimately cool you are, how awesome!" says the former high school cheerleader. "If you give us this daily bread, what are we doing asking for more?"

Then people share their stories. Lisa Fahey, 5-foot-3, 226 pounds, says she has been through the Weigh Down Workshop four times, and hasn't lost weight yet, though she hasn't gained.

But she says she feels accepted here and has gathered enough courage to even divulge her weight.

At 27, she's still learning about God's word on the subject, but she's patient.

"After all," she says, "the original sin had to do with food."

For information: Weigh Down, 800-844-5208; First Place, 800-727-5223

Pub Date: 5/25/98

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