If doctors had to identify the deadliest sin affecting Americans today, they would probably name gluttony as the No. 1 killer. As obesity in the United States reaches epidemic proportions, with more than 60% of adults overweight or obese, public policymakers and health officials are scrambling to find ways to improve the American diet.
But Dr. Don Colbert, physician and nutritionist, thinks the obesity crisis could be solved if Americans would pause before inhaling a super-sized fast food meal and ask themselves a simple question: "Would Jesus eat this?"
If it's loaded with saturated fats, sugar or artificial ingredients, the answer is no, said Colbert, whose recent book "What Would Jesus Eat?," combines biblical scholarship with conventional dietary wisdom.
"The gluttonous spirit is deadly," he said. "I've seen so many diseases related to dietary excess, so why not go back to the owner's manual, the Bible, to see what Jesus ate?"
Jesus essentially ate a Mediterranean diet rich in whole grains, fish, fruit and vegetables and with modest amounts of olive oil, meat and wine, Colbert says.
Anything the Old Testament blacklists in its dietary prescriptions is out, including shellfish, pork products, horses, camels, birds of prey and other carnivores.
Colbert, a Mississippi native who studied for a year at a Bible college and also trained at medical school, said he wrote the book and its companion, "The What Would Jesus Eat Cook Book," both published by Thomas Nelson, after realizing that many of the fattest Americans are dedicated fundamentalist Christians.
"Most people say, 'Hey, it's important that I live a Christian life, but my body's not that important,' " he said.
"They'll go to heaven. The only problem is, if they neglect their bodies, they'll go to heaven a lot faster."
With six new books in his Bible Cure series set to come out this fall, including books on combating cholesterol, diabetes and thyroid problems through diet and prayer, Colbert's Bible-based diet message has expanded far beyond his private practice at the Divine Wellness Center in Longwood, Fla.
And Colbert is not the only Christian diet guru urging people to ask what Jesus would eat. Christian advocates of vegetarianism say that if Jesus were alive today, he would maintain a plant-based diet out of compassion for animals.
Others say Jesus would probably approve of genetically modified food, given his propensity for transforming and multiplying food.
"He was clearly not against the need to alter and change food," said Arthur Caplan, head of the department of medical ethics at the University of Pennsylvania, referring to Jesus' transformation of water into wine and his multiplying of the loaves and fishes.
Although there may be disagreement over what Jesus would choose -- given the options of a veggie burger, broiled lamb with garbanzo beans or genetically modified corn on the cob -- growing numbers of Christians are looking to the Bible for dietary guidance, hoping that Scripture might succeed where science has failed in inspiring healthy eating habits.
Dr. Stephen Kaufman, co-chairman of the Christian Vegetarian Assn., said he hopes more Christians will start making faith-based choices about what they eat.
"There are a lot of people out there for whom diet is a reflection of their faith," he said. "We're taught to take care of our bodies, the temple of God's spirit, as Paul said."
Kaufman disagrees with Colbert's claim that Jesus would eat meat, arguing that although red meat may have been acceptable fare in Jesus' time, modern agricultural practices make meat an unhealthy dietary choice, as well as an immoral one.
In coining the phrase, "What Would Jesus Eat Today?" in 1999, the Christian Vegetarian Assn. put forth a Christian argument for abstaining from meat, urging compassion for animals and citing Adam and Eve's vegetarian diet in Eden as proof that God intended humans to be vegetarian.
Other groups that evoke Jesus to promote vegetarianism go even further.
"The biblical evidence that Jesus was a vegetarian is very strong," said Bruce Friedrich, vegan campaign director for the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which started holding up Jesus as a dietary role model in 1998 with its controversial slogan "Jesus Was a Vegetarian."
Some, however, say it's impossible to extract a dietary ethic from the New Testament, citing a lack of scriptural evidence.
"No diet should invoke Jesus," said Russell Moore, assistant professor of theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. "He nowhere universalizes his diet any more than he advocates wearing robes and sandals."
Calling the Christian vegetarian movement an "attempt to co-opt Jesus for left-wing animal rights propaganda," Moore cited Paul's letter to the Romans, which calls vegetarians weak, as proof that the Bible sanctions meat eating.
Although Jesus' eating habits may not offer up an obvious set of guidelines, any philosophy that will help Americans lose weight should be counted as a blessing, said Caplan, who also directs the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania.
"Putting aside theology, if you can motivate people to eat better by saying Jesus ate a moderate diet, that's not a bad thing, even if the textual support isn't there," he said. "Getting someone to drop 20 pounds in the name of Jesus is not the worst heresy."