There is a national health crisis in America as a result of rampant obesity, caused primarily by poor health choices and overeating. This crisis is particularly pronounced in Southern, predominantly rural states. Perhaps the most disturbing facet of this crisis is its impact on children. Childhood obesity and diseases associated with childhood obesity are increasing at alarming rates. While much attention has been given to this crisis lately, and while a great deal of effort has been made to identify the causes of the obesity epidemic, it is not generally recognized as a moral issue. That is, it is not generally acknowledged that the rapid rise in obesity and childhood obesity might be attributed in part to immorality. In this paper I will suggest that there is a moral dimension to the problem, which should be considered and addressed as part of any effort to solve the crisis. I will argue that practicing Christians should be particularly receptive to an argument that obesity caused by overeating and poor food choices is inconsistent with Biblical and traditional Christian values. That the most overtly “religious” parts of the country should also be those suffering the most from the effects of overeating and obesity is an anomaly that arguably results from a failure of pastors and other religious teachers and authorities to properly call attention to the moral issues attendant to the crisis.
Obesity in America is increasing at a shocking rate. Whereas as recently as 1996 no state had an obesity rate of more than 20%, by 2010 every state in America had an obesity rate greater than 20%, and in 12 states the obesity rate exceeded 30%. (1) Until recently, childhood obesity was not recognized as a significant issue in this country. Now, however, it has reached epidemic proportions, with an incredible 17% of American children classified as obese—triple the rate of 1980. (2) Obesity brings with it numerous adverse health consequences, including heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes, which was until recently unknown in children and was commonly called “adult-onset” diabetes, has now reached epidemic proportions among children. (3)
Although the obesity epidemic (and the adverse health consequences that come with it) has affected the entire country, it is particularly severe in the South and among rural communities. (4) Interestingly, those areas with the greatest rates of obesity are also those areas with the highest rates of church attendance. (5) Although this does not indicate a causal relationship between church attendance and obesity, one might reasonably infer that too little is being done by rural churches to combat obesity in their communities and congregations.
Certainly it would be generally agreed among most Christian communities that there can be moral and religious issues associated with what a person chooses to consume. For example, excessive consumption of alcohol, consumption of illicit drugs and (at least among conservative Christians) consumption of tobacco, would be generally disapproved of, as inconsistent with Christian character and morality. Overconsumption of obesity-inducing food, on the other hand, would not typically be subject to the same moral objections.
Pastors and others in religious authority would be doing a service to the public health of their communities if they were able to persuade their congregations to refrain from the food choices which lead to debilitating obesity. But is there a biblical basis upon which to make such an argument? I submit that there is, and that one might even credibly argue that Christians have a religious obligation to refrain from practices which lead to debilitating obesity.
The Biblical argument with which evangelicals will be most familiar comes from 1 Corinthians 6: 19-20. The command to “honor God with your bodies,” and the understanding of our bodies as “temples of the Holy Spirit” have been used historically in the church as support not only for a prohibition of sexual immorality (as Paul was arguing), but also to counsel against consumption of tobacco and alcohol. If these verses legitimately apply to consumption of alcohol and tobacco, they certainly could just as well apply to excessive consumption of unhealthy, obesity-inducing foods.
An additional compelling argument from Scripture relates to the concept of self-control. In most cases obesity results from overeating, particularly of foods high in fat and sugar. Such obesity is a result of excessive pursuit of temporary physical gratification. It is, in other words, a product of an absence of self-control. In 2 Timothy 3: 1-5 Paul includes an absence of self-control among the characteristics of those who are unholy and lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God. Of them he says: “Have nothing to do with such people.” By contrast, in Galatians 5: 22-23 self-control is included among the “fruit of the spirit.” Certainly a pastor could make a convincing case that to exercise the self-control necessary to avoid debilitating obesity is godly, and to fail to do so is ungodly. Likewise, in Philippians 3: 18-19, Paul says of those whose “god is their stomach,” that “their glory is in their shame” and “their destiny is destruction.” Of course, gluttony is one of the traditionally recognized “seven deadly sins,” and the Bible specifically warns against it (Proverbs 23: 20-21).
A further argument against Christian overconsumption is that in so doing the Christian diverts to his or her pleasure resources that might have been used to feed the needy. As John Wesley put it, “By this needless and continual expense, you disable yourself from doing good…. You might have fed the hungry…; but the superfluities of your own table swallowed up that whereby they should have profited.” (6) Wesley, a tireless evangelist, urged people to maintain good health by exercise and by eating healthy food in moderate amounts. (7) Over 250 years later, this advice is still sound.
As for adult behavior which causes poor health and obesity in children, the moral issues are even more obvious. Any parent who gave a child cigarettes or alcohol would be vilified by a moral community. Likewise, it seems clear that a parent who feeds a child a diet of unhealthy, processed, fattening foods, is failing in his or her moral obligations as a parent. When a child becomes obese, contracts diabetes and has his or her life shortened by the poor food choices of parents, the parent has behaved immorally.
Of course addressing these issues must be done with sensitivity, gentleness and compassion. Often the behavior which results in obesity is a product of ignorance, poverty or both. Many of the cheapest foods are also the unhealthiest, causing the obesity epidemic to disproportionately affect the poor. Likewise, parents are often unaware of the health risks that their food choices create for their children. It would be wrong, therefore, to see the problem as purely an issue of morality. Rather, drawing attention to the moral issues associated with obesity caused by overconsumption of unhealthy food should be done in conjunction with efforts to educate people on how food choices affect health, and how to eat healthy on a reasonable budget. Further, deontological legalisms (such as “do not eat fast food” or “do not drink soft drinks”) will be less helpful than analogical reasoning (such as “excessive eating is similar to excessive drinking”) or teleogical reasoning (such as “responsible eating will lower national health care costs” and “spending less on food for yourselves will free up money than can be used to feed the hungry”).
I submit that the church needs to introduce the subject of morality into the obesity conversation. If handled carefully and with sensitivity, rural pastors have the opportunity to use moral and biblical reasoning to steer their communities and congregations toward better health, making them more fit for service to the Kingdom of God.
6 John Wesley, “A Farther Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion.”