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Fat is a spiritual issue

19 April 2013

Should the Church be concerned about obesity? How can it shape up, asks Christine Miles


THIS Sunday, after the main morning service, hundreds of thousands of cups of tea and coffee will be served - accompanied, in most cases, by plates of calorie-laden cakes or biscuits.

After some services, there may even be a communal meal. Then, of course, there are the coffee mornings, church fêtes with cake stalls, harvest suppers, weekly lunch clubs, community cafés, and mother-and-toddler groups, to name just a few of the occasions when churches issue an invitation to feast together.

Sue Prosser is the founder of a Christian ministry concerned with weight loss and a healthy lifestyle, Fit for Life Forever. "It's good that the Church is a place of hospitality, and where we eat together, but we often go for stuff that is unhealthy. In my own church, we'll tend to have a faggot-and-peas or fish-and-chip supper, or pizza, and there's little thought, really, of providing a healthy option."

Mrs Prosser believes that the Church has yet to take on board what is happening to waistlines in the UK. "I don't think it's on our radar yet. It's interesting that they have done research in America on obesity in churches, but there hasn't been anything over here."

Obesity is defined as a body mass index (BMI) score of more than 30. The BMI is a measure of body fat based on height and weight - 18.5 to 24.9 is classed as normal, 25-29.5 is overweight - although the score has limitations for calculating those with muscular builds, or older people who have lost muscle. Those classed as obese face greater risks of high blood-pressure, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, strokes, depression, and cancer.

IN THE United States, a study by Northwestern University, Chicago, (News, 1 April 2011), found that young adults who attended "a religious function at least once a week" were "50 per cent more likely to be obese by middle age" than their less- or non-religious peers.

Previous research by Northwestern had established a correlation between religious involvement and obesity, but the research was the first longitudinal study (it tracked 2433 men and womenbetween the ages of 20 and 32 for 18 years), and the first to make the distinction that it was churchgoing young adults that were becoming obese, rather than obese adults' joining the church.

Research by Purdue University, in Indiana, in 2006, also found a link between religion and obesity. And a survey in 2001 by an interdenominational US research project, Pulpit and Pew, found that 76 per cent of the 2500 clergy surveyed were overweight, compared with 61 per cent of the general population at the time.

The surveys seem to contradict - or, perhaps, update - research from the 1990s, which suggested that religious people are more likely to be healthier, less depressed, and live longer.

THERE is little room for complacency in this country. In October last year, the Scottish Health Survey suggested that obesity was more prevalent among Church of Scotland members than any other religious group in Scotland or those without any religious affiliation.

The survey classed obesity among Church of Scotland members at 30 per cent; 26 per cent among the non-religious; and 15 per cent among followers of Hinduism or Buddhism.

In January this year, the Royal College of Physicians published a report, Action on Obesity, that looked at at NHS provision, acknowledging that one in four adults in England is now obese, with figures predicted to rise to 60 per cent of men, 50 per cent of women, and 25 per cent of children by 2050.

Two months ago, the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, which represents the majority of the 220,000 practising doctors in the UK, spoke of its members' seeing obesity "as the greatest public-health crisis facing the UK", and issued ten recommendations to begin addressing the obesity crisis in the UK.

DOROTHY DARWENT is a practice nurse in Enfield, north London. She also works as a parish nurse at Edmonton Baptist Church, where 95 per cent of the congregation are Afro-Caribbean. "A considerable part of my time is helping people manage their obesity and improve their health," she says. "There's a big battle going on with obesity in the practice, and also in the church.

"At the Tuesday lunch-club, which is for retired people, at least 50 per cent or more have got diabetes. I surreptitiously target people who are overweight. My opening line is: 'Would you like your blood pressure checked?', then it's natural to talk about diet and exercise, and what they can do to improve their health."

Mrs Darwent agrees that her efforts are not helped by church food-culture, an issue which, so far, she has felt unable to tackle. "As a church, we've got room for improvement. When I look at the catering, it's not always terribly healthy, but I haven't tackled that one directly because other people are doing it, and they might take offence if I wade in and say: 'Let's look at what food you're providing, and how we can improve it.'

"When we have church fairs, we have a lot of pastry, things fried in batter, things you can buy ready-made and shove in the oven. And, at the luncheon club, they serve big portions of rice, when they should be serving a more balanced meal."

She believes that churches need to wake up to the issue. But Sarah Surry, an NHS health-trainer at St Edmund's Church Living Well, in Dartford, Kent, and a member of Christ Church in Dartford, disagrees.

"After the Sunday service at my church, there may be home-made cakes, or biscuits, there may be a fête, or a coffee morning, but that isn't going to make much difference. You can't dip your banana in a cup of tea, and if you put out a platter of fruit you could end up with quite a bit of waste, whereas with biscuits you can just put them back in the tin for the next service. What contributes to people's bad habits overall is often inside them: if, for some reason, they're not happy. It's because they have other triggers, such as loneliness, unhappiness, anger, frustration."

Noreen Gilhespy, who works as a practice nurse at a medical practice in Newham, London, and as a parish nurse at Woodgrange Baptist Church, agrees, but sees the potential of both the ministry of the Church, and the part played by parish nurses.

"There are a few people where it is a medical problem. And some people seem genetically to be more overweight than others. Putting those aside, with very obese people there are often spiritual and social problems."

Mrs Gilhespy runs an aerobics exercise class at Woodgrange Baptist Church, a Pilates class, and chair aerobics for the elderly. For the mothers-and-toddlers, she provides bouncy castles to help the children exercise; and the £1 entry includes a healthy meal of home-made vegetarian soup and wholemeal bread.

"During the exercises I often encourage people - tell them how well they're doing, how they're improving, how they look better - to raise their self-esteem, but . . . if you just treat obesity and diet, you're not really getting to the reason why it's happening."

HEALTH professionals agree that tackling obesity in the UK requires broad-based solutions.

In January, the ten recommendations from the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges included: limiting the number of fast-food outlets near schools; a ban on junk-food advertising before 9 p.m.; a 20-per-cent tax on sugary drinks; a unified system of food labelling and calorie indicators for restaurants, and for nutritional standards in schools and hospitals; advice for new parents; better training for health professionals, and an increase in weight-management services; as well as the promotion of active travel and green spaces.

But they also identified that more needed to be done to address the issues behind why people overeat.

DESPITE its findings in 2011, the lead researcher at Northwestern, Matthew Feinstein, identified the Church's potential in helping to address obesity more holistically, owing to its community networks and supportive small groups, which could be used for programmes and messages that help to care for people's bodies, as well as their souls and their minds.

Next month, Burrswood Christian Hospital, in Kent, will launch a new care package, "Insights into Eating", in response to a marked increase in client need.

The head of counselling at Burrswood, Steve Talmage, says: "Over the past couple of years, we noticed that many of those coming for counselling had difficulties with eating that seemed to be a consequence of other emotional issues in their life. Some weren't really in a position to address those issues, and the impact on their weight; so we wanted to offer something a bit more overt, to encourage people to start to look at this."

In the majority of research on obesity, Mr Talmage says, there is a connection between poor attachment (difficult early relationships) and trauma, and disordered eating.

"There's also a very strong connection with a lack of ability to speak out emotions, or alexithymia. That inability to talk about the emotional issues that may be resonating from those poor attachments, or traumas of the past, can lead to a way of soothing oneself through food."

Burrswood's ten-night care-package includes one-to-one counselling based on the course "Understanding Your Eating", developed by Professor Julia Buckroyd, Emeritus Professor of Counselling at the University of Hertfordshire and one of the leading psychotherapists in the UK on disordered eating.

At Burrswood, chaplains are also on hand to provide support and assistance. "Quite often, people feel that their disordered eating creates a barrier between them and God. Chaplains can take a scriptural view, and bring people to a place of more acceptance," Mr Talmage says.

Course participants also get help from the medical staff at Burrswood, and can receive advice on nutrition and diet as well help from the physio team. "We've got a hydrotherapy pool, which is a lovely way in to increasing activity," Mr Talmage says.

The course costs £2500-£3350, but means-tested bursaries of up to 60-per-cent discount can be applied for, subject to availability, and a few initial places are available at a rate of £999, in exchange for feedback on the course.

Burrswood hopes, later in the year, to offer outpatients access to group-based workshops on emotional eating, linked to Professor Buckroyd's work.

SUE PROSSER was once a comfort eater. At her heaviest, the five-foot four-inch former missionary weighed more than 14 stone. Her experience of yo-yo dieting, and the liberation she eventually found in God, led her to launch a 12-week programme, "Stop Dieting - Start Living". It addresses the emotional issues behind disordered eating, and can be run by churches for people with or without faith.

"I'd been overweight or obese all my adult life. Mine was the usual story of getting it off, and putting it back on again. In 2003, we went to Tanzania, thinking we were there for five years, but it was an experience that went pear-shaped, and we ended up coming home after six months.

"I came home feeling a failure. I didn't see myself as a comfort eater until that point, but when I got on the scales at the end of that year, I realised I had put on about 20 pounds in two months.

"There's always a time when you've got to surrender to God and say: 'I want you to be Lord of this area of my life;' and then you come into a place of peace and submission. Until then, I'd never seen that in relation to my appetite, but, in surrendering my appetite and relationship with food to God, as it says in 2 Corinthians 6.19-20, I began to see my body as something God had entrusted to me; and that it was necessary, if I was going to live out his purpose on earth, and not have my days shortened, to maintain it, and I needed his help in doing that.

"Bringing God in on the scene - seeing it, even, as an extension of my worship and surrender to him on a daily basis, and asking him to help me not to eat beyond what my body needed - had to do with nutrition, it had to do with portion size. It became a walk with God, and over a year I lost four stone."

Mrs Prosser developed "Stop Dieting - Start Living" after encouragement from a doctor in her church. In 2006, Kingsway (now David C. Cook) published her book How to Stop Dieting and Start Living. The book is now in its fourth edition, and it forms part of the "Stop Dieting, Start Living" pack that she offers to churches.

The course is not evangelistic, but some participants have become Christians. "People have come to faith because, by looking at their relationship with food, it has helped them to recognise the different needs in their lives," Mrs Prosser says.

"While the Bible doesn't have a lot to do with dieting as such, it does have a lot to say about how to find the help that we need for all the emotional reasons which can, in some people, express itself in the way that we eat."

FIT For Life Forever, which has on its team a nutritional therapist, a doctor who specialises in nutritional medicine, and a fitness trainer, also offers tailor-made health days for churches.

"There is a tremendous need not only for those who are obese in church, but for all of us, to take on board the importance of looking after our bodies," Mrs Prosser says.

"I don't think that I've ever sat in a sermon, in 40 or 50 years as a Christian, where I have heard a message about how we need to look after our bodies, and try and maintain a healthy weight.

"It can be compassion as to why we don't do that, because we don't want to draw attention to people who might be overweight. Therefore, a wider message on a healthy lifestyle rather than on losing weight is a better route; of course, lots of ministers need to lose weight themselves."

Mrs Darwent agrees. "We need to remind people that God is interested in the whole of us - our physical health, spiritual health, and social and mental health, and encourage people to exercise more. People are not taught to prioritise exercise as part of their lifestyle. That could be promoted from the front."

Ms Surry suggests that churches should promote the provision that others are providing. "Rather than lay on an exercise programme at the church, I encourage people to use the council provision," Mrs Darwent says, "because Enfield borough has a walking group in every park, and the open-air gyms springing up; it's also a good way of getting out, mixing with non-churchpeople and having interesting conversations."

The issue of a healthy life "does need to come on to the agenda more," Mrs Gilhespy says. "We know that 30,000 Britons die each year as a result of obesity-related conditions. It's a problem that's affecting the majority of us now. Not all of us are obese, but most of us are overweight," Mr Talmage says.

Mrs Prosser concludes: "Diets represent legalism in our life: don't touch this, don't touch that. The Church is uniquely placed to deliver the message that we need to look after our health as a message of grace, and where people can find help and support through God and the Christian community."


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