This story by Julia Musker originally appeared in the Fall 2009 issue of the Arts and Sciences magazine.
These days, one may easily confuse the "diet and health" section at your local bookstore with the "religion" section. Books like "What Would Jesus Eat?" The Daniel Diet and Fruits of the Spirit seem to outnumber their secular counterparts.
While some books claim that following a bite-by-bite diet like Jesus' will make you a better, healthier person, the majority make a broader connection between spiritual wellness and physical health. Followed properly, both can lead to healthier lifestyles, and seasoning our diets with a little faith can prepare our hearts and minds for more.
Stephanie Dean, R.D., L.D., bachelor of science Nutrition Science '05, introduces the physical to the spiritual in her book and Bible study, Fit to Serve. Dean, currently working on her master's degree at Dallas Theological Seminary, put her expertise in nutrition within a faith-based framework for a new book about the importance of honoring God with our bodies. She combines prayer, worship and Bible study with nutrition and exercise tips, allowing the spiritual and physical selves to be developed in harmony with each other.
Dean addresses spiritual health as our catalyst for change. Food in and of itself is not the problem; the problem usually lies in our view of food or an unhealthy approach to life.
"The practice of spiritual disciplines provides people a better way to live; by drawing near to Christ, we have a chance to experience the peace and hope He alone can offer," Dean explains.
She believes each member of the body of Christ can function at his or her optimum capacity by being spiritually and physically "fit to serve." She combines daily devotions with health tips that help people examine their food choices and set physical goals for themselves, such as a set number of push-ups or length of a walk. Overall, it offers practical tools for making changes for a healthier lifestyle.
While linking physical health with spiritual health offers much for overall personal wellness, Dean notes to readers that the book is intended as a reference guide only and not a medical manual. Her book and others in the genre aim to help people make informed decisions about their health-not weigh in on doctrine.
"I don't think the Bible is the place to find out what to eat for dinner," says Dean, "You will find the Apostle Paul warning Timothy of people who instruct others to avoid certain foods (1Timothy 4). He cautioned that they taught a false doctrine, a doctrine originating with demons."
Dean does believe the Bible instructs us to honor God with our bodies, referencing the sixth chapter of 1 Corinthians ("The body, however, is not for immorality, but for the Lord ...").
This affects our view of health and our reason for eating nutritiously or exercising. Throughout Dean's book, she reinforces the message that God intended us to care for our physical bodies with the same respect that the Israelites and Levites were instructed to care for the Temple.
Above all else, the heart of the spiritual-physical connection is a simple objective--staying healthy to serve at your best. Stay nourished and active. Focus on energy, heart and bone health as opposed to dress size or weight. Humans are created in the image of God and that should influence lifestyle choices and interactions with others, not influences from pop culture or fleeting fads.
Other books make references toward physical and spiritual health in ways that lack a focus on healthier bodies for service. Backed by little or no science, some books attempt to advocate for more "spiritual" foods or to recreate an exact diet from the time that Jesus walked the Earth, sacrificing some foods that remain high in nutritional value.
Other spiritual-physical wellness books recommend diets or promise results that run contrary to fundamental Christian tenet. However, plenty of science exists to support the idea that a balanced diet supplemented by rest and exercise puts a person in a much better position for spiritual growth and service.
Nutrition professor and chair of Family and Consumer Sciences Dr. Suzy Weems, a registered and licensed dietitian, indicates that while it's true that some foods may contribute to enhanced body function such as brain activity, it's really whole-body health that puts a person in the best position to think and reason.
"The brain works best in a person who eats foods that will contribute to the overall health of the body," she says. The energy fuel for the brain is carbohydrate, but these must be accompanied by a balance of protein and fat.
Looking at specifics - take salmon, which is a great source of lean protein and key fatty acids such as omega-3 fatty acid. Omega-3 fatty acids have a lot of roles in the body, one of which is to strengthen the cell membrane and there is evidence that DHA (one of the omega-3s) contributes to normal brain development.
But eating the fish alone is not likely to clear a brain for thinking. Since no one nutrient works alone for healthy brain function, it is important as well to have enough folic acid, B-6 and B-12 (vitamins) so that cognition is able to continue to develop and be strong."
Overall, Weems, like Dean, advocates a multi-pronged approach for preparing the body for service. "A balanced diet with generous amounts of whole grains, green vegetables, fresh fruits complimented with lean protein sources such as lean meats, skimmed or low-fat dairy is a tasty and positive way to maximize the thinking of a person who is rested and physically active," advises Weems.
Similarly, Dr. Janelle Walter, also a professor of nutrition, adds that one of the most common mistakes people make when they want to go on a diet is that they don't eat enough. "People often forget that their body needs a certain amount and kind of calories to keep their body running. When people don't eat, the body takes apart a stored protein or muscle tissue. This eventually lowers metabolism, and in the long run, a person has lost muscles cell and replaced them with fat cells."
In the end, the proverbial "magic bullet" remains out of reach, but perhaps that's for the best. A super-spiritual food combination for leaner bodies and better devotional times simply cuts short and trivializes the fulfillment that can come from a relationship with God. A well-balanced diet puts our bodies into a better position to minister and be ministered to--unencumbered and ready, allowing us to experience fruits for as well as of the Spirit.