For weight-loss gurus, the Bible is definitely the Good Book.
There’s “What Would Jesus Eat?” (and “The What Would Jesus Eat Cookbook”). And “Thin Within: A Grace-Oriented Approach to Lasting Weight Loss.” And “Slim for Him” (as in Him, not him). And “First Place: The Original Bible-Based Weight Loss Plan.” And “The Joy of Weight Loss.”
Then there’s “The Weigh Down Diet.” And “Body by God.” And “The Maker’s Diet.”
All claim to teach the faithful how to lose weight based on biblical principles.
And all have been best-sellers.
One man’s meat ...
For believers, it might be hard to swallow that the Bible does not prescribe the best way to eat. It prescribes several best ways to eat. That gives entrepreneurial nutritional advisers a varied menu to offer the faithful: One merchant of Christian products, Spring Arbor Distributors of La Vergne, Tenn., offers more than 500 diet-related books in its 2004 catalog alone.
Such diet plans are wildly contradictory. For example, many find their genesis in Genesis — specifically Genesis 1:29, in which God says, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the surface of all the earth, and every tree which has fruit yielding seed; it shall be food for you.” These plans prescribe a diet high in vegetables and low in animal fat.
On the other hand, there’s the fundamentalist Bible Believer’s Diet. It takes its cues from a little later in Genesis, which quotes God in Chapter 9 as saying: “Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things.”
The Bible Believer’s Diet accordingly prescribes red meat (“You MUST eat red meat because God commanded us to eat it”), pure oils and eggs (“God knows what his creation needs. Eggs are good food. Use them liberally.”).
Back to basics
The assumption is that God wants His followers to be healthy and left instructions in His book.
It is not a bad strategy. Nutrition historians generally agree that dietary guidelines set down at various points of the Bible were pretty good summations of the best knowledge at the time about safe food preparation.
Jewish kashrut law and Islamic hallal strictures enforced sanitary preparation techniques at a time when the causes of contamination were poorly understood. They steered believers away from foods that can be deadly if prepared improperly.
Many long-established Christian denominations also continue to follow the Bible’s injunction against “unclean” foods, notably the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, which strongly encourages a vegetarian diet.
But by freezing their philosophies in ideas devised centuries ago, biblical diets can fail to account for modern developments in nutrition.
Molly Kimball, a registered dietitian with the Elmwood Fitness Center at the Ochsner Clinic in New Orleans, analyzed literature and sample recipes from Garden of Life for MSNBC.com. Garden of Life, of West Palm Beach, Fla., markets the enormously popular Maker’s Diet, created by Jordan S. Rubin, who says it cured him of Crohn’s disease at age 19.
Kimball praised Rubin’s advice to limit white, refined carbohydrates and said the program’s call for followers to stop to pray before eating “could help people not overeat or think about food.” But otherwise, she found the diet plan to be seriously lacking.
“A red flag for me was the un-pasteurized products, which can be very dangerous and aren’t safe to eat. This alarms me,” Kimball said in an e-mail message. “Another red flag was the sample menu, which is very high in saturated fat,” including eggs, coconut cream, butter and whipping cream.
“A lot of the requirements he lists in his diet are simply unnecessary,” said Kimball, noting an almost total absence of fruits and vegetables. “His diet doesn’t meet daily requirements, at least in the sample menus.”
Even the most mainstream programs acknowledge that certain vital nutrients, notably vitamin B-12 and some fatty acids, can’t be derived from a simple plant-and-light protein diet. That’s why nearly all of them sell dietary supplements on the side.
Supplements can be a lucrative business, especially when customers believe they are religiously sanctioned. And they are conveniently unregulated by the Food and Drug Administration.
For example, Garden of Life markets almost 30 supplements under its own label, many of them providing minerals and soil-based organisms that Rubin says are vital to well-being. A sample day’s regimen calls for followers to take six to nine Living Multi Supplement pills a day, in addition to a variety of cleansing preparations, cod liver oil and aromatherapy treatments, all sold by Garden of Life. A 40-day supply retails for $140 to $200 — not including the best-selling book.
Kimball did not find much use for the expensive regimen.
“I do usually recommend a multivitamin,” she said, but Rubin’s “lacks important things like magnesium, iron, copper and the basics that Centrum would have, for example.” And she added: “I don’t recommend cleansing supplements because they are typically diuretics or laxatives or fiber and usually not necessary.”
Garden of Life reported sales of $43 million last year, nearly double over 2002, and the company projected a further doubling of sales in 2004, even though the FDA ordered Garden of Life in May to cease making unsubstantiated medical claims for more than a half-dozen products.
Among them was Fruits of Life, some of whose active ingredients it claimed could fight “free radical damage” leading to “rheumatoid arthritis, chronic fatigue and even certain types of cancer.” Another, RM-10, claimed that its ingredients could fight a host of diseases, including “hepatitis, cancer, diabetes [and] AIDS.”
The language questioned by the FDA does not appear in the company’s literature, but it does remain in product descriptions offered by numerous independent merchants of Garden of Life products.
“We have developed and are currently using a system to monitor internet sales in an effort to prevent unauthorized statements about Garden of Life products,” the company said in a written response to MSNBC.com’s request for comment. “Unfortunately, this is an extremely daunting task because of the size and breadth of the internet. Nevertheless, we are addressing this issue and will continue to do so.”
Even Dr. Don Colbert, whose equally best-selling “What Would Jesus Eat?” program essentially replicates the mainstream Mediterranean diet, markets more than 60 supplements under the in-house Divine Health brand. Some of them are herbal remedies and formulations whose efficacy and safety have been questioned, such as black cohosh, a treatment for menopausal symptoms that has been found to contribute to liver failure, and DHEA, the so-called “youth hormone,” which the FDA banned for over-the-counter sales until it was reclassified as a supplement outside its jurisdiction.
Divine Health did not respond to MSNBC.com’s requests for comment.
The Bible Bible
If believers are looking to the Bible for answers, they are getting dozens of different ones. And that doesn’t include the diet programs that invoke the Bible but have no religious basis, like “The Calorie, Carb & Fat Bible 2003,” “Fat-Burning Bible: 28 Days To Thinner Thighs and Hips & Great Abs and Glutes” and dozens of others.
Indeed, just about the only food bible that hasn’t been published is the Bible Food Bible. It would be one page long, and it would print 1 Timothy 4:4-5, which gives this simple advice, echoed by modern nutritionists who have always counseled a balanced diet eaten in moderation:
“For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving: For it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer.”
© 2004 MSNBC Interactive