Man started with one rule in the Garden of Eden:
And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” Genesis 2:16-17
(It’s probably a stretch to call that a food rule, as in dieting rule, but we’ll get to that later.)
By the time Moses was done receiving his directives from God, there were 613 laws in the Old Covenant.
When man falls from grace, there is an increase in rules. Break the rules of society, and you will find a whole new layer of rules in prison. I am a longtime educator, and I can tell you from experience, every school rule exists because of a prior rule that was broken and in need of elaboration.
And it’s no different when it comes to eating. There are essentially three rules built into our bodies that guide healthy eating. If we find ourselves at an unhealthy weight (whether over or underweight), it is likely (barring a medical cause or eating disorder) because we have not followed these three intrinsic rules. The simple solution would be to realign ourselves with these three rules. But instead, many of us pile on a bunch of new rules that remove us from the natural operation of our bodies.
One reason we do this is that our motivation is off base. It’s hard not to internalize our culture’s lean ideal given that we are bombarded with it in ads, movies, TV shows, and social media. And, the same culture that promotes this low-fat, striated-muscle look has plenty of “helpful” tips, tricks, and secrets (i.e., rules) that focus not on health or balance but on manipulating our bodies to look a certain way.
What are these new rules of eating that will cause you to shed pounds fast and give you shredded abs by summer? They are legion, too many to list here, but here are a couple of classics:
- Never eat within three hours of going to bed
- Don’t eat processed foods
- Keep fruits to a minimum
- Restrict carbs of all types, but especially those found in pasta, and egad, bread!
- Eat only raw foods
- Go keto or go home
- Cut salt out of your diet
- Practice intermittent fasting, or if you want to be spiritual, intuitive intermittent fasting
- Write down everything you eat
- Assign a point system to your food and then only eat a certain number of points each day
- Eat protein for breakfast
- Use supplements to decrease your appetite
- Avoid sugary beverages
- Eat more spicy foods (increases release of adrenaline which helps burn calories)
Few of these rules are inherently bad or unhealthy. They rarely produce the desired result of the culturally ideal body, because the culturally ideal body is reserved for the very few who possess the genetic predisposition for that look, and, on top of that, few people follow enough of these rules with the obsessive consistency it would take for them to produce lasting results. But the real problem is that following these rules, even inconsistently, forms a new approach to eating, one that disconnects us from the natural, God-designed communications of our bodies.
To summarize, most of the popular food and diet rules are based on questionable motives, they do not produce the results their disciples seek for the vast majority of individuals, and they create disharmony between our bodies and food.
So, how should we then eat?
We should eat in a way that respects the body as God designed it—a design that includes its own divinely crafted system for maintaining balance, health, and enjoyment.
Many today refer to this approach to food as intuitive eating, a term popularized by dieticians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch in their 1995 book Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program That Works. The goal of intuitive eating is not to have a hot summer body; however, eating according to its principles should lead to a body that is neither under nor overweight.
The following is my streamlined formulation of intuitive eating:
- Feed your body when it’s hungry.
Diet-based food rules introduce cues to eat that are external to your body and often ignore physiological signals. Hunger is the feeling you have when your body needs food. Feed it when it is hungry.
- Stop feeding it when it’s no longer hungry.
I gained a lot of weight when I was younger, and it was because I did not follow this rule. I stopped feeding my body when it could literally hold no more food. I would leave most meals uncomfortably stuffed. When your body is no longer hungry, it is communicating to you that you have had enough food for now. The great thing about practicing this principle is that you leave meals feeling good and energetic instead of experiencing discomfort and lethargy; also, you get to eat again soon because you’ll be back at #1 (please see above) more quickly than you would if you had overeaten.
- Feed it what thou wilt.
Your body knows what it needs. Some will cynically follow up this claim with something to the effect of, So I can just eat a bag of potato chips for every meal?Do you desire a bag of potato chips for every meal? Probably not. Do you desire potato chips? Have a handful, then, if you’re still hungry, ask yourself what else you desire. Maybe some almonds. Maybe some blueberries. Maybe a chicken leg. More chips? Okay. Note how your body feels when you eat particular foods, including the quantity of these foods you eat. There are foods I desired at one time, but when I realized they were leaving me feeling uncomfortable after I ate them, I desired them less. Learn about nutrition; you might find that learning how beneficial some foods are for you will lead you to desire them more often. Avoiding foods you desire often leads to overeating other foods in search of satisfaction that you could have experienced if you had just eaten the initially desired food. If you have residual guilt from following food rules in the past, remember that Jesus declared all foods clean.
Some of us will struggle to implement these three steps. If we have been ignoring our body’s communication for a long time, it will take some patience and practice to detect the sometimes subtle onset of hunger, to have peace when ceasing to eat a meal when satisfied despite the pleasure the food offers in the moment, and to note how a certain type of food makes us feel after eating it.
But challenges draw us closer to our Lord.
To listen to our body, we must be still, the same spiritual discipline described by the psalmist: Be still and know that I am God. Maybe we’ve been piling on rules because we are avoiding slowing down, paying attention, and being still. Maybe when we become still and check the body that was knitted in our mother’s womb by God, we’ll be still enough to experience His majesty while we’re at it. Maybe when we sense satisfaction when eating and stop (though a few more slices of pizza tempt us from a grease-soaked box), we will note that we can be ever filled with the bread of lifeand can continually drink the living waterJesus offers. Maybe when we experience joy in eating that pizza—or that carrot, or that steak, or that strawberry ripened to perfection and dipped in chocolate—we can celebrate the fact that Christ came to give us life and to give it abundantly.
Obsessing over our looks, or even about living a healthy lifestyle, makes an idol of our body. But properly caring for our body according to biblical principles can be a spiritual exercise that helps us live in God’s grace and according to His will. According to Christian philosopher Francis Schaeffer, author of How Should We Then Live?, “The soul is not more important than the body. God made the whole man and the whole man is important.” This notion is supported by the reality of the Incarnation and the fact that not only did our God take on a body, but He remains in it forever.
When we add external rules to God’s law—whether in relation to our bodies or anything else—we are asking for trouble.
The Pharisees in ancient Israel added a buffer of rules around the Law so they could live in a way that didn’t even get close to breaking the original Mosaic Law with its mere 613 rules. Obsession with these buffer rules led some to lose the spirit of the Law, which was to help humans honor and commune with a holy God and get along with each other. This then led to man telling God in the flesh that he had broken their rules, which then led to the cross.
In His life and work on that cross, Jesus made it clear that He did not come to abolish the Law or to add new rules; he came to fulfill the law. And in that fulfillment of the law, you are forgiven and you are free, Christian.
May your relationship with your body be one of respect and peace, and most importantly, may it reflect the union you have with your Maker. I leave you with these words from Christ, the Creator of your body and the food you eat:
“Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on Him God the Father has set His seal.” John 6:27.
Sean Coons is the author of Body: or, How Hope Confronts Her Shadow and Calls the Flutter Girl to Flight, a Christian fiction comedy exploring body image and intuitive eating. Sean’s latest novel, Firefly: Let There Be Light, is a middle-grade adventure slated for publication by Black Rose Writing in October 2021. Twitter: @seancoons. Facebook: @seancoonswriter. Instagram: @seanmcoons. SeanCoons.com.