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Angela Tilby: Spare us the sermons on weight-loss

22 October 2021

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“YOU’VE lost weight!” is a greeting that I am all too familiar with. People whom I haven’t seen for a long time seem to assume that it is what I most want to hear, even if it is not true. Last time a friend, who happened to be a GP, said this, I responded, “No, I haven’t, actually, but you might like to know that my visceral fat is not outside normal range.” I am actually much the same shape as my mother and grandmother, and, like them, I like food and often eat more than I strictly need — though, again, like them, I eat well: plenty of fruit and veg.

Last week’s article by Richard Pile (Features, 15 October) emphasised the link between obesity, poverty, and cheap processed food. There is much evidence behind his analysis. It is a multi-causal problem that won’t be solved by taxes and pep-talks. Many lack both funds and access to fresh food; some are without proper cooking facilities. Yet, while I think that God is deeply concerned about the consequences of poverty in our society, I am not sure that he measures us against the standards recommended by today’s wellness industry.

I question the argument that everyone can enhance their personal well-being by adopting set standards of body shape and weight. The one time in my life when I was the “right” weight, I was at my most depressed and uncreative. The variation in human shape and size benefits us all, even if it puts some of us at greater risk — which is why I would not welcome advice from the pulpit on healthy living. I would rather be helped to deal with the moral diseases of being human: control of the passions — and, yes, that includes appetites — and resilience in the face of temptation.

The consequences of obesity in terms of heart disease, diabetes, some cancers, and stroke are well enough known, but, on an individual level, things are less predictable. Our bodies come with their own strengths and susceptibilities, and the relationship between mind and body is more complex than the medical model usually allows.

There are, for example, saints who were disturbingly anorexic. And fat ones. St Thomas Aquinas was obese. His contemporaries regarded him as a great, dumb ox. Yet, within this corpulent body was a mind that was curious, agile, subtle, and on fire for God. If he had religiously lost weight, he might have lived longer, but perhaps never have written the Summa. As it was, when he suffered a devastating stroke, he seemed to see it almost as a gift, regarding his earlier work as mere straw. A great mind in an obese body produced the most profound and lasting text of Western theology. The human body, mind, and spirit are not fully integrated, which is both our curse and, perhaps, our hope.

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