In this science-dominated era, people are constantly being advised about the effects on their health of the consumption of the various food products available to them. In America, obesity and diverse eating disorders are recognized and cited as huge (no pun intended) and ever-increasing threats to our well-being and longevity. The claims made by the different diet program recommendations are often contradictory and confusing, leaving one hard-pressed to know what is a health promoting diet.
The problem appears to persist, and we remain perplexed, because the orientation toward it is strictly materialistic. Humans are viewed as merely chemical processing organisms at the mercy of whatever substances we intake.
But Jesus had a different slant on this issue. He is quoted in Matthew 15:11 as having said, “Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man, but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man.” (It is reminiscent of the modern witticism, “It’s not what you eat, but what eats you.”) He goes on to explain that the food consumed is transient in its effect but that the expression of an individual demonstrates what is in his or her heart and hence what he or she most values and is therefore of more abiding consequence in affecting the quality of one’s life.
This reference to values as the determinant of our lives, as opposed to the rituals or regimens that we follow, whether they are of a religious or a scientific nature, is what distinguishes Jesus’ teaching from those other, perpetually unsatisfactory explanations of what is in our best interest. Anyone ignoring what an individual cherishes in the secret recesses of his or her being will never fully understand the vicissitudes of our experiences or the puzzling changes affecting our bodies.
As for the mysteries of diet, we can observe that medical and/or nutrition science has not been able to adequately account for the fact that different individuals react differently to the consumption of the same set of foods. This is usually attributed to genes or metabolism, thereby rendering the problem as one beyond our ability to redress. But we also know that people in different parts of the world do not have available to them the rich variety of food choices found in industrialized countries, yet often manage to achieve equal or greater longevity. Apparently their bodies effectively transform and/or utilize the nutrients present in the local foods to sustain health in ways not comprehended by western science.
Many of the theories developed by science regarding healthful diets are derived from experimenting on other animals, like mice or rats. Lately we have been told that eating small amounts helps one to live longer. Others have said that a vegetarian diet is most conducive to extending life. None of these ideas is terribly convincing, and few people alter their eating habits to adhere to the touted recommendations. Of course, that may merely reflect the fact that most of us are addicted to the foods we like and reluctant to modify our tastes for the sake of unproven theories about health.
What Jesus was referring to in his assertion is that the human spirit is the critical element in the sustenance or destruction of the individual and the human body. Clean hands, which foods are eaten, the order in which they are eaten, and whether eating is accompanied by ritual prayers are all of distant secondary significance compared with the quality of expression manifested toward our fellows and our environment.
We are notified that we are here to glorify our creator by valuing and communicating those qualities that exemplify its and our being. Lesser concerns lead to the self-centeredness and narrow-mindedness that “defileth” us.
But what about the individual struggling with obesity? How can he or she be helped by Jesus’ suggestion?
The first thing to inquire into is the meaning of one’s condition. If an individual’s body is sufficiently heavy that normal or necessary functioning is impaired, then one can ask what such a situation indicates about the values being cherished that might be responsible for that corporeal state.
Although each individual is unique, and her or his situation is distinct, it is a commonplace, especially in our society, that we not infrequently overeat to alleviate the discomfort we feel. We tend to value feeling comfortable and avoiding feeling uncomfortable. So we might eat to feel better, even though such action doesn’t confront the source of our unease. In fact, it hides the issue from us behind the food that we consume.
But avoidance of a discomfiting problem is what makes the obesity appear difficult to resolve. If we do not understand what is troubling us, and only focus on feeling better, then we are not really interested in overcoming the weight problem because our heart is primarily concerned with our feelings and not with our health. When our attention shifts, when we recognize that we cannot avoid unresolved problems without perpetuating our unhappiness with our weight, then the issue can be readily understood and addressed.
The avoidance, prompted by excessive concern about how we feel, is the core of the problem. Weight can quickly and safely be lost (or gained, as needed) when health and fulfilling our real purpose in life become the focal points of our attention.
Jesus’ advice helps us by directing our interest toward the quality of our consciousness, what we value, and the way we express ourselves in the world. It encourages us to review our priorities and to move toward realizing that what we value is most responsible for our wellness or illness. And with that understanding, diets assume their natural, more limited role in our lives.