What is Healthy Eating?

by L. Shannon Jung

Eating often seems so prosaic, so everyday, so trivial, that we are tempted to forget that eating is a spiritual and moral act. The question of what constitutes healthy eating is one that we in the church often leave to the nutritionists as though food were only a fuel and we only calorie-burners. I want to demonstrate here that eating is a practice by which we can get in touch with God, with other human beings, with animals and plants, and with ourselves. We can of course ignore the inevitable spirituality about eating, but if we open ourselves, eating can help us get in touch with God.

Think back a moment to a truly memorable meal—one where the food was excellent, the company stimulating and lively, and the bond of friendship or family strong. What made it so? Was it the sense of being able to be fully in your own skin? Was it the sense of connection between food, between people—a feeling that “this is the way it should be?” In his book Food and Faith, Norman Wirzba asks: Why did God create a world in which all living creatures need to eat? The answer, it seems to me, is that God creates the need to eat in order to call us into communion with God, whether that presence manifests itself in growing food, sharing food, or breaking the bread of the Lord’s Supper. It reveals that we are in fact a membership of the whole, a shalom of earth community where the wheat and the grapes and the tomatoes and the chicken are grown both to enjoy life and to give us their nutrition. We as parents and adults grow up in such a way that we give nourishment and delight to each other.

If one examines Scripture, it can be argued that God intended food both for delight and for sharing. That is, we were created to eat in order to delight in the eating in our lives, and also to share that eating and our food with others. We need to share—when we do not, something is missing. This basic insight—that God has endowed our food with some elements of God’s own goodness—points towards a number of practices that the church has historically maintained as spiritual guideposts. Such spiritual practices are, in fact, shared activities that address fundamental human needs. When woven together, they constitute a way of life. Christianity can, of course, be thought of as a way of life as much as a system of doctrine. Without such practices, we would miss countless opportunities to get in touch with God, each other, and our shared planet. It saddens God when we fail to recognize the beauty of food, of creation, of each other and even of ourselves.

These practices are ways of living in a healthy manner. They are ways that the ordinary activities of life realize their sacredness, and they are ways that we worship. They also in their totality present an alternative way of life that fits the nature of who God created us to be.

1. Saying grace. There is a nano-second, even for those who profess no religion, just before eating, when people pause and realize that they are in the presence of something greater than themselves. For the Christian this is a moment of gratitude in which we acknowledge our dependence on God and the goodness of that “which we are about to receive.”

2. Sharing with others—hospitality. This may be the activity that churches practice most often. In sharing with others, both those they know and those they don’t, they follow the second great commandment and give evidence that they are following one of God’s intentions in creating food. Most churches and denominations have hunger programs and also maintain the ideal of radical hospitality.

3. Fasting. This practice has come into its own again as those who practice it realize a number of benefits from it. They recognize their own dependence on the earth community. They see how little they absolutely need in a consumer world and they share a common bond with others who are fasting. They also appreciate the fact that they can choose to fast while others have to do without. They become sympathetic with those who are genuinely hungry.

4. Feasting. Strangely this spiritual practice has fallen into a bit of disrepair. Maybe it is because we have forgotten that as human we are hungering creatures. Feasts abound throughout Scripture as a way of celebrating the goodness of life and also of bonding with other people.

5. Honoring the body. This one comes close to what we usually mean by health. God has given us embodiment as a primary form of our existence and counsels us to maintain the health of our bodies through a balanced diet, careful exercise, adequate sleep, and careful hygiene. Honoring our own bodies also leads to honoring other bodies, such as those of the starving, the disabled, and the dying. It indicates just how much we are related to all others who share bodies.

6. Preparing food—yes, cooking. Preparing food is an activity that is best shared, and obviously it can be a joy in itself. We have the example of Jesus preparing breakfast on the seashore for the disciple as a resurrection appearance (John 21). Cooking is definitely a way of sharing and of enabling delight. (This practice is one that the Gospel writers—all males—missed!)

7. The Eucharist/Lord’s Supper/Communion. This one is a master practice in every Christian church. In it are encapsulated elements of all of the other spiritual practices. All of the practices contribute an aspect to Communion—gratitude, sharing, honoring others, hospitality, and feasting, to name a few. Some have claimed that the Eucharist is a model for all our eating. It is a glimpse of the heavenly banquet, a visible acknowledgement of the fact that we are the body of Christ, bread and wine for all others.

8. Finally, and usually not included: gardening or the growing of food. Gardening is the activity where we come closest to recognizing just how much we are creatures dependent on natural forces. The seasons of the church year follow the seasons of nature, and they reveal to us just how much we are blessed beyond ourselves. Millions of people—whether rural, urban, or suburban—grow their own food and are increasingly buying local produce.

What we usually mean when we ask the question, “What constitutes healthy eating?” is included in the practice of honoring the body. But the historical Christian practices extend that notion of health considerably to include our relationships with God, others, earth creatures, and ourselves. They remind us of who we are and how much God loves us and wants us to delight and to take care of the earth and each other. What additionally might we say if we were to explore the world of faithful food choices?

Reading the book Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss reminds me of how much the world of food is corporately controlled. The average consumer is assaulted with waves of nutritionally questionable products containing addictive substances (sugars, salt, fats) that render us overweight and ill. Christians might adopt alternative diets that are healthy ones. Christians are concerned about where that food came from and how it got to our tables. What suffering or oppression is contained in that banana? How much fossil fuel enabled that kiwi to get to our tables in February? Surely we cannot be complacent when it is clear that our wellbeing comes at someone else’s expense, nay, even misery. That is not faithful eating.

Rather than shaming ourselves or giving in to immobility, we are blessed to live in an era where our access to food is broad and there is healthy food available, and we can do something about our complicity in the global food disorder. Furthermore, we can acknowledge our involvement in the disorder of the food system when we know that God has already forgiven us and we experience that forgiveness in the community of mutual care—the church. The practices we have described above are historic Christian activities which invite you to focus on shared activities that address our fundamental human needs. When they are combined and practiced they become a way of life. They are ingrained into our very being and being part of our lives. What better group to practice with than the church where we can reinforce each other’s health and model what faithful eating looks like everyday!

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