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Feed the soul, trim the fat

With bestsellers and networking, the Christian weight-loss movement is creating believers.

July 10, 2006|Elena Conis | Special to The Times

When the First Place Christian weight-loss program came to his church in 1998, Chino computer programmer Mark Gutierrez -- who weighed 310 at the time -- was skeptical. The 44-year-old father of two had tried numerous high-profile weight-loss programs, starting as far back as age 13.

"I had lost weight many times, but always put it back on and more," he says.

Fear and doubt, he says, delayed him from committing to the program for a year. But once he signed on, in early 1999, he met with rapid success -- dropping 120 pounds in the first 12 months.

The program's spiritual component made all the difference to him.

"You draw your encouragement and strength from God and Bible study, from prayer and the prayers of others in the room with you," he says of the First Place program.

Religious diet and weight-loss programs are booming, fueled by spiritual leaders' heightened attention to the problem of obesity and its medical fallout. They are delivering a compelling message to the faithful: God cares about physical health.

The movement, overwhelmingly Christian, mirrors trends in alternative health and the secular diet industry, with their emphasis on natural, nonprocessed foods, and vitamin and herbal supplements.

There are no solid statistics on how many people are now turning to God and his mouthpieces for guidance on trimming down and getting fit, but a growing trend is unmistakable.

First Place, founded in Houston in 1981, now boasts half a million members in every state and dozens of countries. The Chicago-based Thin Within, founded in the late 1970s, has more than a hundred groups in the U.S., Britain and Canada.

The Tennessee-based Weigh Down Workshop, launched in 1986, now claims a million followers in more than 30,000 groups worldwide.

And recent years have seen a swelling number of programs, books and events dispensing faith-based advice on diet and fitness.

Two books -- "The Maker's Diet" by Jordan S. Rubin and "Body by God" by Dr. Ben Lerner -- have made religious and secular bestseller lists in recent years, and the latter has inspired hundreds of Body by God makeover challenges across the country.

Today, even televangelist Pat Robertson touts his own "age-defying" protein shake and "weight-loss challenge" on his Christian Broadcasting Network.

As the movement swells, some weight-loss experts are questioning whether these programs and the advice they proffer are effective.

"There are lots of movements and books and programs that developed a head of steam with regard to weight loss," says Kelly Brownell, director of the Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorders. "People try them, they have the same old results that every other program did

Yet experts also note that faith-based diets incorporate several elements that may enhance their effectiveness -- notably, a heavy emphasis on group support and, like Alcoholics Anonymous, deference to a higher power.

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Ancient beginnings

Unlike other dietary fads, Bible-based eating advice has a more than 2,000-year-old history. The Old and New Testaments have long served as a source of dietary advice, inspiring the faithful of different religions to forgo meat during Lent, for example, or eschew specific foods (such as shellfish or pork) for a lifetime.

But the current trend in Christian weight-loss books and programs dates only from the last two generations. Scholars say it was kicked off by the 1957 book "Pray Your Weight Away," in which Presbyterian minister Charles Shedd linked obesity to sinfulness, advocating prayer as the path to thinness. (He claimed it helped him lose 100 pounds.)

Shedd created a new market. By the '70s, a glut of personal accounts of Christian faith-based weight loss had been published, with titles such as "Slim for Him," "Help Lord -- The Devil Wants Me Fat!" and "More of Jesus, Less of Me."

Then, in the late '70s and through the '80s, came the birth of church-based group programs such as First Place and Thin Within.

The effect was questionable, but the need clearly great. In 1998, Purdue University sociologist Kenneth F. Ferraro published an article in the Review of Religious Research reporting that compared with people who had no religious affiliation, religious people were significantly heavier -- with Baptists the heaviest of them all.

That news, said Don Colbert, a Florida-based doctor, inspired a renewed cycle of faith-based programs and books, including his own 2002 book, "What Would Jesus Eat?"

The current generation of Christian-inspired health media is decidedly different from its homegrown forebears. The products are glossy and corporate. The programs run the gamut, including those that advocate simply tuning in to God-given physical cues that signify hunger and fullness to avoid overeating -- with few or no restrictions on what to eat -- and those that go beyond dietary and fitness advice into tips on time management, improving marital relationships and more.

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