Protestant Influence on the Contemporary American Diet Culture

This is one in a series of guest posts authored by students in an undergraduate course I taught during Spring 2014, “Protestantism and the Development of American Culture.” Each student’s task was to write an informative essay explaining some way that Protestants have shaped (or tried to shape) American culture. Students knew that their essays would be posted to this blog, so they would have a real-world online audience.

Students are entirely responsible for the content and quality of their essays; I am merely the vehicle for broadcasting them (though on the whole I’m reasonably pleased with the results).


Protestant Influence on the Contemporary American Diet Culture
By Charles Getz

Have you ever wondered why so many Americans are obsessed with dieting? Even though the United States is the 2nd most obese nation on earth, many Americans spend a great deal of money on diets and health programs each year. Have you ever wondered why this phenomenon exists? Is it our culture? Our religions? Our fascination with celebrities? One could think of many possible reasons. If analyzed, the American interest in diet programs can be closely linked to the Protestant teachings that helped shape the ideals of our nation and its history.

Background 

Since European colonists traveled across the ocean in search of a better life in America during the Colonial Period, Protestants have been the dominant religious group. Of the first thirteen colonies, a total of nine had Protestant establishments. As a result of this prevalence, it can be argued that Protestant ideals have helped shape the values and norms in the United States today.

Beginning with the Constitution, principles such as freedom of the individual and the right to pick your own religion can be traced to Protestant teachings. The ideas of liquor laws, book clubs, and competition in sports are part of our culture which can all be linked back to Protestantism.

For many years Americans have been obsessed with their outward appearance and have attempted to perfect their bodies. This has resulted in countless dieting books, videos, and programs. Such a commitment to one’s body could not be any stronger than it is today. According to Marketdata Enterprises, Inc., there were 108 million dieters in America in 2012. Those dieters were expected to produce a weight loss market that reached $66 billion in 2013. Clearly, this proves Americans are dedicated, or at least hope to be, to having a fit and healthy body.

It can be argued that this idea of perfecting one’s body is a result of the heavy Protestant influence in America. They believe in maintaining a healthy body and soul to honor and worship their God. As a result, Protestants have gotten into the dieting industry and have created quite an impact. In her book Born Again Bodies: Flesh and Spirit in American Christianity, R. Marie Griffith points out that the largest Protestant dieting program of all time written by Gwen Shamblin, The Weigh Down Diet has sold millions of copies and is available in seventy countries. Hundreds of thousands of Americans take part in diet programs like Shamblins today, and millions of American Christians have turned dieting into a religious duty. (1)

The remainder of this essay will consider such questions as: What about these diet programs makes them Protestant? Can they be closely linked to teachings in the Bible? Has Protestantism influenced dieting culture as a whole or has it created a separate one?

Dieting from the Beginning

Long before dieting was a fad in America, Protestants have been using scripture and prayer to shape their bodies. This form of dieting is known as devotional dieting and it involves the pursuit of “bodily fitness as a vehicle for developing close, satisfying relationships with a beloved whom they aim to please through obedient self-discipline.” (24) Griffith suggests that “What marks religious diet culture as devotional is the addition of expressive relationships with sacred figures such as God or Jesus, accompanied by the belief that the human body’s fitness affects such relationships in direct and indirect ways.” (24) For Protestants, the goal is to create this “satisfying relationship” with their God and savior.

One of the earliest ways Christians focused on their body to worship their Lord was through fasting. By abstaining from food, they attempted to prove their strong sense of discipline and focus on their relationship with their God. Early Protestants such as Martin Luther and John Calvin were two well known theologians in support of abstinence. Luther urged fasting “both to curb distracting physical desires and to take care of the body so that it might minister to others’ needs.” (24) Calvin was more of a strict supporter of fasting “as a necessary discipline for appeasing God’s wrath.” (24)

In America, early Christians reframed fasting as a way to shape their appetites as well as form a devotional relationship with their God. “From these practices emerged an array of historically influential and resonant modes for enacting spiritual control over bodily desire.” (25)

Dieting Culture Today (Protestant)          

Marie Griffith suggests the contemporary Christian diet culture we see today found its beginnings in the post WWII America. It was then that Christian dieters began to desire disciplined lives to obtain a relationship with their God and form a group of holy people pleasing to him, rather than focusing on individual pleasures.

At this time books like I Prayed Myself Slim by Deborah Pierce, a southern Episcopalian, and Pray Your Weight Away by Presbyterian minister Charlie Shedd gained great popularity in America. They key to these diet books, which can be noted in their titles, was prayer with God. (162)

Along with prayers, Pierce’s book included a month long diet program that held to a strict calorie count. Prayer was then used to fight off the urges of consuming more calories. These prayers, Griffith explains, were “set to liturgical cadences and meant to be repeated throughout the day for humility, recollection of gluttony as sinful, and strength to overcome it.”(162)

Shedd’s book spoke of fat as sin, encouraging readers to weigh themselves and declare each pound they were overweight as sin. If they could see the fat (or sin) they could take care of it with prayer and self discipline. He promised his readers weight loss through “sustained prayer, devotion to the Bible, and faith in thinness as a sign of sanctity.” (163)

It should be pointed out that these Protestant programs do fall in line with traditional Protestant teachings and can be backed by verses in the Bible. In Shirl James Hoffman’s book Good Game: Christianity and the Culture of Sports it is pointed out that “The Bible speaks of the body as one of God’s highest creative acts that, in some inexplicable way, reflects the Creator’s image.” He goes on to write “the Bible also condemns harmful gluttony as one of the seven deadly sins (Proverbs 23:1-3), describes the body as a temple of the Holy Spirit, and urges believers to glorify God in their bodies (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).”

Another aspect of the Protestant diet programs which made them more popular was that the authors linked the Christian aspects to other secular diet programs of the time. While prayer was the key to success, secular activities of the day also played an important role. Important aspects of health such as exercise and healthy nutrition were included in the programs which made them even more attractive to the people attempting to lose weight.

One of the most popular Protestant diet programs of contemporary times is the Weigh Down Workshop created by Gwen Shamblin, a nutritionist and fundamentalist, in 1986. It is the largest devotional diet program ever and by 2000 it was offered in thirty thousand churches, seventy countries, and sixty different denominations. At first the diet program was secular until Shamblin made it explicitly Christian in 1990. (177)

Shamblin said she asked God for guidance and took the Weigh Down Workshop to churches. After publishing her first book, The Weigh Down Diet in 1997, Shamblin gained great popularity and success. Her book quickly reached sales into the millions and she was given great media attention from companies such as CNN and ABC.

Like previous Protestant diet programs, Shamblin taught the important of prayer in losing weight. What made her diet so different is that she did not believe there were good and bad foods. She only wanted people to eat less.

Dieting Culture Today (Mainstream/Secular)

It is no secret the dieting industry in the United States today is a very successful one. With 108 million dieters in 2012 and revenues approaching $66 billion for the year 2013, it is clear Americans hold quite an interest in their physical well being.

While most of the secular dieting programs do not explicitly suggest the use of religion in losing weight, many bring up the topic of spirituality. These programs teach the usefulness of meditation, mindful exercise, and the spirituality of food to their readers.

Griffith reports that prominent public figures “such as Oprah Winfrey and Norris Chumley enduringly preached the necessity of harnessing spiritual forces for the purpose of weight loss.” Also, books employing spirituality like “Think Yourself Thin: The Visualization Technique That Will Make You Lose Weight Without Diet or Exercise” by Debbie Johnson and Daily Word for Weight Loss: Spiritual Guidance to Give You Courage on Your Journey by Elaine Meyer have gained great popularity.

This method of using spirituality and the mind to lose weight can be connected to the Protestant diet programs which also teach in such ways. While it may be unfair to suggest that these programs have been created as a result of the Protestant programs, there are certainly points that suggest Protestant teachings have helped to shape them. In the future, it will be interesting to see whether the Protestant diet culture and the mainstream diet culture in the United States become more or less similar.

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