To shed those pounds you could head to Weight Watchers. Or, you could just head to your local Christian bookstore. There, you'll find shelves lined with books, DVDs and CDs all promising slimmer hips and thighs ... with a little help from God.
Involving God in your efforts to lighten up is not a bad thing. Just the opposite in fact. After all, the virtue of temperance has long been considered the antidote to the sin of gluttony -- an inordinate concern with food and the body, often accompanied by excessive eating.
But not all faith-based diets are created equal. From the Catholic-based "Light Weigh," which encourages you to offer up temptations to overeating, to the more evangelical plans "Weigh Down," "The Maker's Diet" and "Your Whole Life," most so-called Christian diets vary as much in their approach to weight loss and what constitutes healthy eating as they do in their theology.
Those differences matter. And not just in ways that scales can measure. Some promote a healthy lifestyle and an understanding of eating that complement Catholic teaching on food and the body. Others repackage ancient heresies in a contemporary context.
So, how can you separate the wheat from the chaff and not fall prey to wrongheaded, albeit well-intentioned faith-based weight-loss plans? What kind of plans can you embrace and what kind of plans should you avoid?
According to Dr. Christine Whelan, a social historian who received a Templeton-Cambridge Fellowship to explore the world of Christian diet books, big red flags should go up when any diet plan implies that God's love for you is contingent on successful dieting or a svelte figure.
"Some Christian diet groups imply that God loves thin people more than fat people," Whelan said, "Catholics should be wary of that sort of judgment. Being fit and healthy is a great goal, but God still loves us even when we don't reach our personal goals."
Sister Timothy Prokes, F.S.E., a theology professor at Christendom College's Notre Dame Graduate School and author of "Toward a Theology of the Body," also warns against diets that encourage what she calls "contraceptive eating."
"That's eating that's not life-giving," Sister Prokes explained. "Products that will not nourish, that give the appearance of food and taste like food, but are not real -- fake foods such as non-fat-fat and those which guarantee no body-retention, and provide no real value to the body. People need to look carefully at the food they're being told to eat and ask, 'Is it real or is it pharmaceutical?'"
Likewise, recalling St. Peter's dream in Acts 10, where a tablecloth covered in the good things of the earth descends from above, and God commands Peter to eat of it, Sister Prokes cautions would-be dieters to beware of any plan that promotes extremes or places any good food "off-limits."
"The goal is balance," she said.
But the biggest red flag for anyone contemplating a diet -- faith-based or otherwise -- won't be found in a book. Rather, explained Father Leo Patalinghug, author of the "Grace Before Meals Cookbook" (Leo Watkin Films, $15.95), it will be found in each individual person.
In other words, there are right reasons to diet and wrong ones. The right ones, he said, include staying healthy and "caring for the temple." The wrong ones are for pride, to achieve a false image of beauty or because of too much love (or too little) for the body.
Dieting for the right reasons, Father Pata-linghug continued, is a good thing. But diet for the wrong reasons, "and the Devil will attack."
In order to keep the "right reasons" at the front and center of any diet plan, Father Pata-linghug said that certain fundamentals of the faith should inform how Catholics eat and how Catholics think about eating, starting with understanding eating as a form of communion.
"Food brings us together," he said. "It's an opportunity for sharing and giving of ourselves. Any diet plan that turns us in on ourselves, that turns eating into simply satisfying ourselves, creates problems."
That's exactly why Whelan recommends that Catholic dieters and non-dieters make room in their food budget for a little tithing.
"Many overweight people don't have the money, education or resources to eat healthy foods," she pointed out. "Instead of focusing so intensely on ourselves and our own waistline, one great way to diet would be to spend less money on groceries and donate it to a soup kitchen or nutrition education group for low-income families."
Sister Prokes also urged would- be dieters to keep the Eucharist in mind when they eat, explaining: "We need to think over and over again that the highest form of God's presence to us in an ongoing way is the Eucharist, God giving us his body to eat and his blood to drink. We need to reverence food because of that. All eating is, in a way, pre-eucharistic."
If Catholics keep those and a few other fundamentals in mind (see sidebar), Father Patalinghug believes that not only can they navigate with confidence through the world of Christian diet books, but also that a lot more than just a weight problem can be solved.
"What people are hungering for more than anything else is to satisfy their own loneliness, not just to satisfy an empty stomach," he said. "Eating the right way for the right reasons helps satisfy both."
The Catholic diet
A diet is more than just a nutrition plan for weight loss. It's also the substance of what we eat and the attitudes that inform how we eat. So, what should a Catholic diet look like? How should all Catholics be eating and thinking about eating? Our Sunday Visitor put that question to Father Leo Patalinghug, author of the "Grace Before Meals Cookbook." His tips include:
"Be thankful. Food is a gift, not a right."
"Don't miss the connection between your family's dinner and holy Communion."
"Always make sure God is part of the meal. Say grace always."
"Don't make food an end in itself. Think of food as an opportunity for communion with others, as an event, as opposed to merely a means to satisfy your appetite."
"Practice temperance. Know when to fast and when to feast."
"Eat real foods. Grace builds on nature, and natural foods are better than processed foods."
"Slow down. Even if you're eating fast food, don't eat on the run. Eat it slowly and with others."
Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.
Clothes fitting a little tight lately? If so, you're not alone. Sixty-three percent of the U.S. population tips the scales past what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention deem a healthy weight, and more than a quarter of Americans qualify as "obese."