To Eat or Not to Eat: That Is the Question

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My life has been radically changed the last few months—I mean, truly revolutionized. On January 1st of this year, I started reading Breaking the Stronghold of Food by Dr. Michael and Nancy Brown, which recounts their journey of each losing 90 pounds in eight months, their struggle with food addiction, and practical steps for recovery. I already respected Dr. Brown as a very balanced theologian who 'gets it'; I believe his heart properly reflects God's intention for the way we should live our lives, and that he is truly sincere in his aspiration to Biblical Faith. When he and his wife came out with their testimony, I couldn't believe Dr. Brown was ever fat!

My own story is fairly common among people in my age group: I was an immutably lanky teenager—I was one of those people who could seemingly eat whatever I wanted and never had to worry about it. When I graduated high school, I weighed 145 pounds. I gained some weight through my college years, attributing the increase to the development of my adult body, and I think I was around 175 or so when I got married in 1994. But after my last daughter was born in 2007, my metabolism apparently slowed down, I quickly got fatter and fatter, and my health went down the drain just as rapidly: I always had been susceptible to respiratory diseases, but I truly became terrified to be near anyone with a cold or flu, as the symptoms would sometimes linger for three months or more; I had several attacks of gout (which I relieved with cherry juice and other foods containing anthocyanins); I had frequent migraine-level headaches that would incapacitate me for hours; even though I had intermittent digestive issues from childhood, these got worse when I got fat (probiotics helped, but were not a cure); I had continuous joint pain that made it difficult to move, and I had to push through the constant pain to do anything that I enjoyed or was simply required to do; the tissues in my neck, face, and tonsil area had swollen so much that it was constricting my airway, making it nearly impossible for me to sing, and causing unbearable snoring at night that my wife had to endure.

I thought these symptoms were just problems of getting older, but then I went for a physical in June 2017. Surprisingly, my blood sugar, cholesterol, and blood pressure were only at the high range of normal; but at that time, I weighed in at 235 pounds. I had elevated ALT enzyme levels and after an ultrasound, I was diagnosed with fatty liver. Earlier on in the year, I had decided that the Atkins school of thought made some sense (the idea that eating fats is not the issue, and that excessive intake of carbs was the root cause of why so many people are obese). So, I had increased my consumption of meat while eliminating my ingestion of 'big carbs' (sugar, potatoes, rice, bread, pasta, etc.) After the physical, I increased my intake of dandelion root, which helps the liver metabolize fats, and this helped a little with my increasing stomach trouble. But this haphazard approach of high meat protein, high-fat with 'medicine' to help burn off some of the fat did nothing to help me lose weight—in fact, I gained even more throughout the year (see the collage below for my progression). I also suspected possible 'low-T', and bought some longjack powder (which tastes terrible, by the way, and did nothing). All of this reached a boiling point when I began to truly have shortness of breath after doing simple tasks, and would almost black out bending over to tie my shoes. I was scared, and knew I needed to do something.

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Then Dr. Brown began to talk about his book and the journey it described on his Line of Fire radio show, and I was intrigued. I was never one for New Year's resolutions, but over the winter holiday season I decided I would read Mike and Nancy's story, hoping it would be a springboard into some sort of journey to good health. As I immediately devoured it, the LORD convicted me that I had developed an addiction to food. I realized that I was eating all the time: when I was bored, tired, stressed, depressed, angry—anything could trigger my 'need' to grab a bite. I was looking to food for comfort and to gratify my desires rather than finding my satisfaction and provision in the LORD. Beyond all the health problems and obesity, this was the root cause for me, and I had to address my idolatry head on.

I repented before the LORD, and asked the Holy Spirit to cause me to transform my desires. I then partnered with the Holy Spirit by intentionally making the following changes:

  • I immediately stopped all snacking between meals, holding myself strictly to eating only three times per day
  • I completely eliminated all junk and pre-packaged foods from my diet other than a small dessert serving on a special occasion such as a birthday or holiday: no chips, crackers, pretzels, cookies, ice cream, candy, etc. I no longer eat convenience foods—even those that are marketed as organic or 'healthy'.
  • I transformed my plate from a majority-meat dish with a starch and vegetable to a majority-plant based, low-calorie, high-nutirition meal with meat, dairy, and 'big carb' starches GREATLY reduced in quantity (wheat has virtually been eliminated—see below). Meat is now at best an accent food; most of my meals are vegetarian if not vegan.
  • (These first three changes were the most critical to my success)
  • I have eliminated all processed flours with the exception of chickpea or other bean flour, which I use in VERY SMALL quantities. While I am trying to reach my weight loss goals, I have eliminated all bread including any non-bean/chickpea pasta, and I have gone mostly gluten-free.
  • While I still eat grains and starches like corn, rice, and potatoes, I have reduced my intake to less than 10% of all my calories consumed. Furthermore, I try to eat whole grain rice and purple- or red- skinned potatoes instead of white potatoes (steamed to retain nutrients rather than fried or even boiled).
  • I have erased all added sugar from my diet, eating only natural sugars that are present in fruits. I use only fruit and stevia (a naturally sweet, no-calorie herb) as sweeteners.
  • I have GREATLY REDUCED my intake of oil, using only enough to coat the bottom of a pan to keep food from sticking. I vastly prefer to eat whole foods (olives vs. olive oil, fruit vs. fruit juice, nuts vs. nut oils) as the body uses the dietary fiber from these foods to slow or bypass the absorption of calories and sugar contained within them.
  • What small quantity of meat I now consume is among the list of clean meats prescribed in the Bible: my diet is now 'kosher-style.'

The LORD gave me the discipline to push through the temptations, and following these steps, I have lost 70 pounds from when I began the diet in January to the time I am completing this writing (6/30/18)—so I am thinner even than the picture at the bottom right in the collage. I have gone from pushing a size 40 waist to nearly a size 32 (my size 34 shorts are loose on me now.)

More importantly, all the conditions I listed previously have disappeared completely (though I have yet to return to the doctor to confirm a lowering of ALT levels): the joint pain went away two weeks into the diet; inflammation is completely gone; headaches are history; I have had no stomach problems after the first week; I have had a HUGE surge in energy; the swelling in my facial and throat tissues has been eliminated—I can sing with no issues, there are no coughing or choking fits, and my wife says I no longer snore; where I could not bend over to tie my shoes, I now have full mobility; I have no shortness of breath; I only got a cold once during this time—the symptoms were very mild and went away in THREE DAYS instead of three MONTHS; and so far, no gout or precursory symptoms have appeared (I do not expect I will be dealing with this again)!

All of this was achieved with very little exercise—the vast majority of my lifestyle change has been diet alone. This is very important for people who are obese and in pain to understand. Most of us are NOT healthy enough to exercise—a person has to lose a certain amount of weight through dietary changes before they can begin an exercise regimen in order to avoid damage to their body due to the strain of all the excess tissue. This is very achievable: HALF of my weight loss occurred in the first 30 days of my new lifestyle without any exercise at all. As I began to feel better, I slowly increased my exercise level to keep the calorie-burning engine chugging down the tracks; but I still only have a 20-minute workout period with a stationary bike and a pull-up bar. Nancy Brown posted on Facebook in our support group that she doesn't exercise to this day, and still lost 90 pounds in eight months on the diet alone. Her testimony was inspirational to me and was the key factor in my decision to try their way of eating. 

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Mike and Nancy Brown followed Dr. Joel Fuhrman's Eat to Live as their pattern for a new way of eating. After reading the Brown's book, Dr. Fuhrman's book, watching the documentary Forks over Knives (available on Netflix), and studying what the Bible says about food, I arrived at a hybrid eating style that obviously has been very effective for me: a mix between plant-based and kosher-style to arrive at the majority plant-based diet I described earlier.

Is it difficult? In some ways, very much so. I always loved all kinds of food, and I enjoy trying new things, so switching to a majority plant-based diet was not a struggle for me; but those who 'hate green food' would have a much harder time adapting to this way of eating. I will say that when I changed my plate, my sense of taste improved—EVERYTHING tastes 'more': strawberries are sweeter, the little bit of meat I eat tastes better with less seasoning—and I can even sense the subtle differences between the greens that I eat. Furthermore, I don't really miss the way I used to eat. I'm satisfied with my meals and don't get too many cravings. If I do crave food between my meal times, I drink green tea with stevia for a low-calorie stimulus.

But I will not lie: the first week of this lifestyle was not fun. I had terrible stomach pain with diarrhea (I took some astragalus root tea which helped get this under control), headaches that were so powerful I could not move, some uncontrollable tremors, and overwhelming fatigue; but by the second week, all this went away and my energy went through the roof. My body was getting rid of all the toxins it had accumulated from 'bad fuel'. 

Also, this lifestyle is labor-intensive: with veggies, LOTS of prep work is involved—it just comes with the territory. Fortunately, I have always loved making my own food and worked a stint as a short-order cook; so the ability to experiment with new recipes and knowing how the ingredients will react to each other and to different cooking styles was a huge advantage. Those embarking on this journey who don't know a santoku from a pairing knife will have a new learning experience, however. Practice makes perfect! (A few new kitchen gadgets went a long way as well—but you can do this on a budget).

More than anything, though, my experience has left me with a genuine burden for people who are suffering from obesity and disease. I have come to believe, as Dr. Joel Fuhrman and many others have, that the preponderance of disease in Western society could be cured or prevented through eating at least a majority, if not completely, plant-based diet. Now, to be clear, based on Biblical passages like Romans 14, I do not judge a person as sinful or ignorant based on their dietary habits; but if we examine what the Bible says on the whole about food consumption, we need to ask ourselves some questions with regard to the way most of us eat (especially in America).

So often, we are praying that God will heal us from disease, but if we ate the way God originally designed us to eat, many of these diseases would not manifest in the first place. I'm not trying to take a legalistic approach here—not every disease has been brought on by a poor diet; and certainly I do not condemn a person who is dealing with a debilitating or terminal malady with a cause they do not understand and who may have limited options for remission. We live in a fallen world, and sometimes things just happen as a result of the general sinful state. Instead, I'm trying to be Biblically consistent with God's commandments and His promises. One of the promises God gave to the Israelites was that if they kept the covenant (of which the Torah was central), they would not have the diseases of the Gentiles. Today, much of Christianity dismisses the Torah as a bygone method for achieving salvation; some Christians believe it is even wicked to regard the Torah as applicable or virtuous! (Read my article Paul Misinterpreted? for more information.) These people completely misunderstand the purpose of the Torah: instead of a means of salvation, it was God's instructions to His people, declaring His character and standard of righteousness. God's instructions were for the people's good—they weren't meant as an arbitrary, stifling denial for the sake of purgation.

This is best evidenced in the kashrut, or dietary laws. The reason why God included these from the very beginning was to protect His people from disease, enabling them to live in the freedom of health. I personally believe this is what Jesus was getting at when he spoke to Jewish leaders in Matthew 15 and Mark 7. Note that even though Mark 7 says, "In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean", Jesus did not say, "So let's go out and eat large quantities of pork to celebrate!" He was not saying that every type of creature is good or safe for us to eat; what He meant was that eating food does not separate you from God—so the kashrut laws are not about sinfulness. Here's what the Bible says about food:

  • we were created in the middle of a garden and placed there to work it (Genesis 2:4-17)
  • the green plants were given to us initially as food (Genesis 1:29)
  • after the Flood, animal products were sanctioned by God, but no blood was to be eaten (Genesis 9:1-7)
  • in the Torah:
    1. While certain farming practices are regulated (i.e. the land must rest in the seventh year [Ex. 23:11, Lev. 25:4], leave the edges of your field for the poor and the widow [Lev. 23:22, Deut. 24:19], don't reap fruit trees until they have been established for five years [Lev. 19:25], etc.), there are no prohibitions on vegetable or fruit consumption: only meat products have regulations attached.
    2. blood and 'straight up' fat consumption was prohibited (the rabbis determined that the normal amount of fat that 'marbles' through meat was still acceptable, but the lining of fat attached to the meat is prohibited from consumption and is trimmed before the meat is cooked) (Lev. 3:17, 17:14, 19:26, Deut. 12:16-25, 15:23, Acts 15:20,29, Acts 21:25)
    3. Of land mammals, only meat coming from those that are both ruminants and which have a split hoof may be eaten (Lev. 11:1-8, Deut. 14:6)
    4. Of marine animals, only meat coming from creatures with both scales and fins may be eaten (Lev. 11:9-12, Deut. 14:9-10)
    5. Of insects, only the grasshopper family may be eaten (*insects with jointed legs for hopping; crickets are a point of debate) (Lev. 11:20-23)
    6. no reptiles may be eaten—the rabbis have determined that this includes every kind of reptile (Lev. 11:29-31)
    7. all clean birds may be eaten, but no specific list of clean birds is given; only unclean birds are listed in Leviticus 11:13-19 (the bat is included because the Hebrew word means 'flying creatures that are not insects'). Based on this list, which includes most birds of prey, scavenging birds, flightless birds, and stork relatives, the rabbis included all these kinds of birds to be unclean. (Lev. 11:13-19, Deut. 14:11-18)
  • gluttony is a sin (Deut. 21:20, Prov. 23:2, 20-21, Prov. 28:7, Rom. 13:14, Gal. 5:22-23 [self-control], Phil. 3:19)
  • food in and of itself is not what makes you defiled, however (Matthew 15:1-20, Mark 7:1-23)
  • common courtesy should be the rule (Romans 14:1-15:13)

I would encourage everyone to ask themselves the question, “If God asks His people to behave in a certain way in the Bible, why would I want to figure out some way to do something different?” We need to truly understand that God loves us and has our best interest in mind—it’s not about penalties and punishment; it’s about the freedom to walk in the rewards that come from doing the right things.