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Putting Weight Behind Prayer

Health: With the church-based 'First Place,' dieters get help from Scripture, education and loved ones as they work to shed pounds.

September 03, 1996|MARY ROURKE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Want to lose weight?

Try God.

That's the message at Mountain View Baptist Church in Lake View Terrace, where a faithful group of weight watchers gathers on Sunday evenings to share stories about the powers of pizza, chocolate shakes and other delicious vices.

Not quite prayer meeting, not quite weight-loss program, the group combines a little of both by following First Place: A Christ Centered Health Program, part of a nationwide network that includes more than 10,000 Baptist churches.

Members of this branch range in age from their mid-20s to mid-60s. Many say they have tried other diet programs, none of them quite like this.

Instead of true confessions about indulging in too many devilish doughnuts, repenters bow their heads and pray--"I'm stressin' Lord."

Rather than boast about their own iron will, they credit the loved ones who help.

"This time I'm surrounding myself with people who understand about God," says Elizabeth Campbell, who is not a Baptist but saw a TV segment about First Place and now travels from her home in North Hollywood to attend meetings.

After one month in the group, Campbell has lost 17 pounds--with dozens more to go. But she is much more impressed with the improvement in her overall health.

Doctors told her she was near death when she developed diabetes on top of heart disease. Since she joined First Place her blood sugar level has dropped from a dangerous high of 398 milligrams to 159. (A healthy level is somewhere between 80 and 120 milligrams per deciliter of blood.)

*

First Place takes its name from scripture.

"Seek ye first the kingdom of God," writes Matthew in his gospel.

It takes its diet from the American Diabetic Exchange Diet, approved by the American Diabetes Assn. The low-fat meal plan, with no refined sugar allowed, draws on the four basic food groups for a daily total of about 1,200 calories for women, 1,500 for men, according to Terry Miller, media coordinator for First Place.

On average, weight loss ranges from 1 1/2 to 2 pounds per week, she says.

For times when temptation is too much to manage, group members swap Bible quotes that have saved their day.

Rhoda Quick invokes Saint Paul--"not me but Christ in me." A resident of Glendale, she introduced the First Place program last September and serves as director.

To account for the past week's achievements, members bring along their personal food journal--a written account of everything they ate during the week, complete with notes on the number of portions and calories.

During a 15-minute Bible study session that is part of the meeting, Quick explains that divine will, not her own, has brought her this far. "I always knew it would have to be a Christ-centered weight-loss program to work for me," she says. She has dropped 17 pounds in less than one year.

*

Program sessions last 11 weeks; new members pay about $65 and receive an instruction manual, a "First Place Favorites" cookbook and a Bible-study program.

Along with prayer and scripture readings, the weekly gatherings include conversations about low-fat and naturally sweet foods to use as substitutes for ice cream sundaes and butter-coated bread.

During the week, members are expected to engage in some type of aerobic exercise routine. And everyone has a prayer partner.

"Every day at lunch, I'd pray for Sharon and she'd pray for me," says Stefanie Campbell of a former partner.

Campbell, a resident of Sunland, has lost 20 pounds over the past year. She also credits prayers for the A she scored in a philosophy course this summer. "We relate the prayers to all the areas of our lives," she says.

The folks at the meeting call First Place "the live-it not die-et" plan. While their attitude is playful, their intention is serious.

The program was founded 15 years ago in Houston by members of the First Baptist Church who decided to start a weight-loss support group.

Now, it is so big that the Baptist Sunday School Board in Nashville publishes the growing number of related pamphlets, newsletters and cookbooks for participating churches nationwide. A full-time national director, Houston-based Carole Lewis, oversees a staff of 22, leads training programs and as many as six First Place health conferences each year.

*

Several members of the Mountain View church program say they tried Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers, but they consider First Place a better deal.

"When I went to the big J.C.-- and I don't mean Jesus Christ--it cost me about $50 per pound to lose weight," says Judie Post of Sunland. (She includes the cost of special foods in her tally.)

First Place meals rely on standard grocery store fare. Memories of last Thanksgiving attest to the results. Laura Post, Judie's daughter and neighbor, recalls the holiday's church social with its two separate rooms--one huge and brimming with fatty stuffing and sugary pie, one tiny yet twinkling with low-fat alternatives.

"Turkey, dressing, sweet potatoes, pumpkin pie. We had everything they had," she recalls.

"Actually they had a little bit of an attitude going," says Judie Post, to razz the nonmembers who attended the party. "They'd say, 'Why can't we have that food?' "

By now, more of them can. Members of this group don't offer two meal plans at home. When they join First Place the whole family gets in on it.

"My husband gets up and makes my lunch every day," says Sharon Covington of Lake View Terrace, married just two years. She is down two sizes since January.

To encourage the group, Quick lets the facts speak for themselves.

"Sixteen people have lost 330 pounds in 11 months in this program," she says.

The response is anything but the usual diet group chatter: "Praise the Lord," they exclaim.

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