Food Police: Punching Our Ticket to Heaven?
By Jesse Jost
” I am the LORD your God, who brought you up out of Egypt. Open wide your mouth and I will fill it.” Ps 81:10
I love food. I dream about it. Some of my greatest memories centre around it. But I’m also leery of it. I partly blame food for my being overweight. Evenings are ruined with a stuffed after-dinner belly, and some foods keep me up nights when I suffer heart burn and acid reflux. I wonder which foods might give me cancer or lead to a heart attack. Believe me, I want to be healthy, especially now that I’m in my early thirties. I want to have energy to play with my kids and be as free from disease as possible.
I want to know how big a role diet plays in our health, so I’ve been reading and studying this topic a lot. Our culture has the idea that the key to health, youth, and beauty is to find the perfect diet formula: which foods to eat and which foods to avoid.
This idea is mercilessly exploited to sell food and supplements. When food is in such abundance that we not only have access to every food group year round but also multiple options in each category, what will make a product stand out? Sellers need to make their product dirt-cheap or convince the buyer that their food fits in the magic food formula and the competitors’ doesn’t.
This good-food-equals-health idea is a source of much guilt and anxiety, especially for a mother who longs for a healthy family. If her family has any health issues, she thinks that because she failed to feed her family the correct diet, the health issues are her punishment for those desperate trips to McDonalds and the last minute instant noodles.
If this idea is a source of anxiety for moms, it is even more a source of self-righteous pride for others. It is so easy to judge the food choices of others, and blame their health struggles on their “un-healthy” diet.
But what is a healthy diet? The more you research nutrition, the more confusing it gets. Each new health finding seems to directly contradict another study. One study shows a food to be a super food, while another will link that same food with cancer.
For people marketing foods, this is great. They are almost guaranteed to find a study that proves their product is healthier than the next and fits in the magic formula. For the guilt-plagued mother it is a nightmare. The questions become more and more overwhelming: Sugar is bad, but are artificial sweeteners worse? Which is more deadly: fat or carbs? Are these non-organic vegetables poisoning my family with toxins? Should our diet be mostly plants or meat?
Now, of course, not everybody has anxiety over these questions. Depending on who got to them first, most people have strong convictions about what makes up a healthy diet. Some are firmly in the low-fat camp and others dwell in the low carb camp. There are vegans who see saturated fat as artery clogging poison, and meat lovers who see vegetable oils as diabolical slime. Many people are elitist at some level when it comes to food, believing that while they have been enlightened with the secret knowledge of nutrition, the masses are mindlessly eating their disease-inducing garbage.
Contrary to the bold-face type confidently dispensing nutrition advice from magazine covers and colourful web-pages, there are very few simple answers when it comes to nutrition. The truth is, we don’t know as much about nutrition as those trying to sell you something make it seem.
There are often overlooked reasons for this. Our level of health or disease is caused by many complex factors besides diet. Our genetic make up, environment, exercise, and emotional state all play a significant role; it is almost impossible to take these into account in nutrition studies.
When a person develops cancer, was it genetic, caused by the environment, or brought about by carcinogens in food? When a person lives a long, rich live, was it the cigarettes and ice cream he daily consumed that were the trick? The most often committed fallacy in the field of nutrition is “after this, because of this.” Correlation does not equal causation. Just because Jim ate oatmeal every day and lived to be 100 does not mean eating oatmeal is key to longevity. And Ellen, who jogged three times a week but died young of cancer, is not proof that jogging causes cancer. In these examples it seems obvious, but it is astounding how often this fallacy works its way into reportedly scientific studies.
Magazines and news outlets are desperate for stories. They care more about the story that sells than if the story is really true. Nutrition info is gobbled up by those obsessed with health. Because of this, conclusions are jumped to before there is enough confirming evidence and findings are often exaggerated. This to say nothing of all the sponsored studies that spin the findings to sanctify their own product.
Because of all the confounding variables in human health, nutrition researchers often turn to the animal kingdom for clues, rats and mice being especially popular. Many of the sensational headlines proclaiming a hidden danger in your favourite food or drink often involve mice. But there are a couple of huge problems with animal tests that astoundingly often get overlooked by otherwise sane people. One is that we are physiologically different than mice and rats; we process our food differently and were designed with dissimilar nutritional needs. Just because a food affects mice in certain ways is not proof that it will affect humans the same way. Second, in many of these studies, disproportionate amounts of a substance will be inserted into the vermin. Just because a substance is toxic at a certain level does not mean it is not safe at any level. Even water will kill at a certain level of ingestion.
We all need a new level of humility when spouting our nutritional advice. Every human body is different and responds in unique ways to food. What worked for you may not work for someone else, not to mention that what made the difference in your life might not be what you think it was.
Food has become the new morality. In the 1950s, a typical mother cared deeply about sexual morality but thought little about the nutritional value of the food she was grateful to serve her family. Today it seems that many people will flaunt their sexual immorality, yet blush to be caught eating at McDonalds.
Many Christians especially have created a new form of food legalism. They feel righteous for abstaining from certain foods, and look down on other Christians who are not so discriminating with their food choices. It becomes easy to blame health struggles on their “sinful” eating habits.
Does the Bible teach this good food vs. bad food idea?
In the Old Testament God gave the Israelites ceremonial food laws to keep them distinct from the other nations. But in the New Testament these food laws are repealed. Look at some of what the New Testament has to say about food:
“Don’t you understand either?” [Jesus] asked. “Can’t you see that the food you put into your body cannot defile you? Food doesn’t go into your heart, but only passes through the stomach and then goes into the sewer.” (By saying this, he declared that every kind of food is acceptable in God’s eyes.) (Mark 7:18-19 NLT)
“It’s true that we can’t win God’s approval by what we eat. We don’t lose anything if we don’t eat it, and we don’t gain anything if we do.” (1 Cor. 8:8 NLT)
“Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations— “Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle,” which all concern things which perish with the using—according to the commandments and doctrines of men? These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh.” (Col. 2:20-23)
“Therefore do not let what is for you a good thing be spoken of as evil; for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” (Rom. 14:17)
[Paul is warning against those who] “advocate abstaining from foods which God has created to be gratefully shared in by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with gratitude; for it is sanctified by means of the word of God and prayer.” (1 Tim. 4:4)
While the health of our bodies matter to God, in this life He is far more concerned with the health of our soul and the health of our relationship with Him and others. Eventually this body is going to decay and become disease-riddled no matter what foods we put into it. I am not saying nutrition doesn’t matter. What we eat affects the health of this physical body. It’s good to ask if a certain food is going to harm or help my body, but the far more important question is, “How is my interaction with food affecting my relationships?”
Is food becoming an idol? Are you looking to food to provide things that only God can provide, including health? Are your thoughts and opinions about food drawing you closer to other Christians or are they divisive and driving people away?
We think that by researching and labeling food good and bad we are making ourselves healthier, but we ignore the blackness in our hearts. Labeling food “bad” only makes us want it more. There was a study conducted with school children where they were fed a full meal, then offered “junk” food afterwards. Some kids said “no,” while some continued to pig out even though they were already full. What made the difference? Those who binged on the junk food came from homes where junk food was condemned as bad.
More than other people around the world, we in North America are much quicker to label food as bad, and talk about food as a guilty pleasure. It’s sad. God gives us an amazing gift, a sign of his love and mercy, and rather than use each bite as an opportunity for worship, we wolf it down, hoping nobody notices our indulgence.
Because food is now divorced from the worship of God, we begin to worship food in itself. This is where food will always let us down, leaving us dissatisfied and binging on heartache.
God designed food to be our ever-present companion. Unlike animals that can gorge themselves and then go for months without food during hibernation, we humans need food regularly.
Food is a constant reminder of God’s mercy. Since our rebellion toward God began with food, it would have been perfectly just for Him to say, “Since you sinned with food, your punishment is that from now on all food will be flavourless. You will still get hungry, and I will provide, but now you will only eat what you need.” Instead, God let us keep our palate, and turned us loose on a lifelong adventure of food exploration, where we get to experiment with food marriages that make our taste buds want to have babies. God continues to give us five types of taste buds (keys) on which can be played a whole symphony of flavours.
Every bite of food should be a source of wonder and gratitude, filling our hearts with love and worship for our great God.
I believe God also made food to strengthen our relationships – a gift that would bring us together. Paul tells us to eat and drink for the glory of God. One of God’s greatest glories is the fact that He is relational, a holy Trinity of unending, sacrificial love. So one of the ways to use foods for God’s glory is to eat and drink in a way that reflects God’s heart for unity. Food should be a way for us to express love for each other and celebrate our relationships. Food should bring us together, not drive us apart.
Nutritional wisdom may always be hard to obtain, but that is okay because our righteousness and the health of our soul does not depend on eating the correct foods. Our god is not our belly. Our hope is in the One who made us and made food to show us His love. Let’s stop heaping food burdens on others, stop worrying if this bite will lead to cancer, and look to God. Next mealtime, savour each bite and ponder this promise:
“I will be your God throughout your lifetime–until your hair is white with age. I made you, and I will care for you. I will carry you along and save you.” Is 46:4 NLT