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Health Food Diets, the New Religion?

While Adam and Eve were told to stay away from just one tree blossoming with apples, people across the country -- from celebrities to the neighbors next door -- are staying away from a variety of foods that they consider "forbidden."
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Give us this day our daily bread (Matthew 6:11)... as long as it's gluten free. While Adam and Eve were told to stay away from just one tree blossoming with apples, people across the country -- from celebrities to the neighbors next door -- are staying away from a variety of foods that they consider "forbidden." Increasingly, Americans are embarking upon health food diets with a religious-like zeal. For instance, while just 1 percent of the population suffers from celiac disease, which triggers an immune system reaction that causes inflammation in the small intestine when a person eats food containing gluten, about 30 percent of Americans now want to eat gluten-free, often because they think it will help them lose weight. And let's face it, for countless people growing up in a culture where thinness is idealized and equated with goodness, salvation and eternal happiness, the yearning for thinness itself has taken on the zeal of the once fervent desire to connect to the sacred and to live a life of meaning.

As a clinical social worker specializing in the field of eating disorders, for years I watched people struggling with anorexia nervosa and bulimia and the existential questions their eating disorder often represented through starving their bodies, or in binging and purging behaviors. Their days were spent obsessed with what they would or would not eat, and how they would get rid of what passed through their lips. It offered a structure in their lives -- eventually taking over their lives -- to reach their goal, which was to be in total control as exemplified through their bodies attaining the coveted societal goal: to be thin.

Like the ascetic, or the religious person engaged in fasting, there are spiritual dynamics at play. I can't help but wonder if the increasing number of Americans jumping on the health food bandwagon isn't in some way related to a search for something more meaningful in their lives, and a way to organize their world around an ultimate purpose. After all, the Pew Forum on Religious and Public life reveals that the number of Americans who do not identify with any religion continues to grow and now encompasses one-fifth of the population. What if the growing obsession with what is allowed in the body is at the expense of asking what will nourish the soul? Can the religion of thinness really offer true happiness and inner peace?

I am all for healthy eating. But I have to wonder about all the people I know and all the people I read about who are embarking on a way of eating that often amounts to little more than a way to pursue weight loss at a time when dieting is out, but juicing is in. In 1997 Dr. Steven Bratman coined the term Orthorexia, a diagnosis characterized by an extreme or excessive preoccupation with avoiding foods perceived to be unhealthy. In his book, Health Food Junkies, Bratman notes that it is more socially acceptable to say, "I want to be healthy," than saying, "I want to fit into these skinny jeans."

I know people who will tell you every health reason for every morsel they put in their mouths or refuse to put in their mouths. They can talk about it for hours. Yet almost invariably, within the conversation their ultimate desire for weight loss is revealed. I'm not arguing about weight loss per se, but about how often this cultural dietary obsession is merely another version of bowing down to the false god of idealizing thinness as saintliness. Instead of bowing down to the golden calf, they are bowing down to the green kale.

While Moses led the Israelites to the Promised Land -- the land flowing with milk and honey, it's a fair bet that were he to be in charge of leading the people today, he'd have to deal with arguments about the merits of a Promised Land that would flow with milk, rather than soy.

If my friends want to eat this way, and feel it's helpful for them, so be it. But I find the inordinate amount of energy with which they engage in their particular diet regimen often takes on the added goal of proselytizing those in their midst who don't join them in their detox diets or who, God-forbid, actually order a sandwich at lunch while they drink their green juice. We know the importance of religious tolerance, so why can't we extend that to food tolerance? Go ahead and eat what you want, but let me eat what I want without giving me the message, both explicitly and implicitly, that you are holier than I because of what you choose to eat.

Growing up, I like most of my friends heard the same message from our mothers: Eat you fruits and vegetables and go outside to play. It may not have Hollywood written all over it, but it sure is good advice for living a healthy and joyful life that leaves room for other pursuits that nourish not only the body, but truly nourish the mind and soul as well.

In Ecclesiastes 8:15 we read: "Then I commended mirth, because a man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry..."

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