Blue Evangelical Chapel

Evangelical Weight Loss

Evangelism draws its primary meaning from the practice of spreading Christian beliefs. But it also carries a broader meaning of zealous advocacy. And you don’t have to spend much time dealing with obesity to run across some of those zealous advocates. So it’s no surprise that evangelical weight loss programs have sprouted in many churches.

For the June issue of the Journal of Religion and Health, D. Gibbes Miller considers the risks and benefits of these evangelical weight loss programs.

Empowerment and Inspiration

It’s no secret that behavioral strategies for weight management can be quite personally challenging. Many individuals struggle with overwhelming biological and social factors. Those factors can influence body weight far more than personal choices do.

So inspiration can be quite important. Miller’s assertion that faith communities have great potential to empower people to lose weight is certainly reasonable. He also points out that community support can be valuable to augment an individual’s efforts. But he also notes that the community aspects of some evangelical weight loss programs have also generated controversy. Accountability can easily become a source of distress, he notes. That distress comes from public weighings in some of these programs, where other participants view it as an accountability ritual.

Promoting Stigma

Miller also notes that some of these programs promote stigma – attaching it to larger bodies and to health-related behaviors. In the context of religion, that stigma can be especially powerful. On top of that stigma, he notes that some evangelical attach gender norms for women, such as a thin female body. He quotes one participant as saying, “I think God wants us to look as attractive as we can.”

A Narrow View of Obesity

Many of these programs neglect the social determinants of health, Miller says. Neglecting community factors that influence health and weight has the potential to limit the effectiveness of these programs. On top of that, we cannot find any acknowledgement of biological factors that drive obesity.

On a theological note, we could not find any mention of grace – God’s freely given love and acceptance – a core concept of Christianity. Nonetheless, it’s relevant in this context, especially given the stigma of obesity.

But perhaps the biggest issue is that most of these programs require blind faith in their effectiveness. As Miller notes, research on these programs is quite limited. We advise caution. If you find a supportive community – great. But don’t expect medical miracles.

Click here for Miller’s analysis. For further perspective, click here.

Blue Evangelical Chapel, photograph © Christian Collins / flickr

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May 9, 2018