To maintain a healthy weight, Nettye Johnson relies on her faith.
She doesn’t try to pray away the pounds or ask God to bless a bad diet.
Instead her regular Bible readings and prayer inspire a healthful life fueled by natural foods and regular exercise.
“God, I want to honor you with my food choices,” said Johnson, 47. “I don’t want to eat whatever I want to eat and then ask you to bless the consequences.”
Johnson, of Denham Springs, establishes her philosophy in a new book, “Put Your Faith Where Your Fork Is,” a guide that mixes the science of weight loss and exercise with Christian devotionals. A certified health coach and former corporate trainer for Weight Watchers, Johnson dieted for years but said she could never keep the weight off until she included her faith in her daily food and exercise decisions.
“If we pull him in and make him the center of it, then we realize food doesn’t have the power over us and by the same token we shouldn’t be mindless of it. It’s a gift and a blessing from him,” she said.
Christian and church-focused weight loss plans are becoming more common, said Robert Newton Jr., a researcher at Pennington Biomedical Research Center.
There is the Eden diet, which tries to re-create an eating philosophy based on Genesis chapters 2 and 3, and First Place, a weight-management system created by Southern Baptists.
Weight management books from Weigh Down Ministries and megachurch Pastor Rick Warren have hit bestseller lists.
Churches and writers like Nettye Johnson are learning that they have more influence to affect Christians’ health.
“There are more churches nowadays that have a health ministry,” Newton said. “The faith community is recognizing that it can play a role in changing behavior. It is realizing it is a resource for this.”
A 2005 study of a weight-loss program in a Baton Rouge church found that participants stuck with the program and reported a positive effect on their health. While weight loss was not as large as university-controlled programs, participants did lose weight.
Prayer, group accountability and other factors that influence behaviors contributed to the success.
“We definitely know that prayer is important,” Newton said. “What we do know is that the combination of those things helps people to lose weight. I think for people whose faith is important to them, that is a good way to go in terms of trying to lose weight.”
Raised in Chicago by parents born in Mississippi, Johnson said she was brought up on good Southern food. She had an aversion to exercise — she failed physical education class one semester in high school — and was always a little “chubby” as a child.
“It was kind of normal,” she said. “There were a number of people in my family that were heavy.”
When she was 17, her father died of heart disease. Her family was shocked, but Johnson realized he had been sick for years with high blood pressure and heart problems.
“I grew up thinking that was what happened when you got to a certain age,” she said.
She learned that many Americans live with chronic diseases, like heart disease or diabetes, that could be either avoided or improved with a better diet and exercise.
That was true with Christians as well, Johnson found.
As recently as 2011, a study by researchers at Northwestern University found that people who attend church at least once a week were twice as likely to be obese. Researchers surmise that they have larger social networks and more opportunities to overeat.
Johnson tried fad diets and tried-and-true routines, but the pounds stayed off when she said she started seeking spiritual solutions.
Instead of processed foods, she decided to eat foods that were close to their natural state. She said she stopped craving the flavors of salt, fat and sugar like she once did.
“It’s a biblical principle. You reap what you sow. What we feed grows,” she said. “The more you eat healthy natural foods, the more you desire them.”
In her book, Johnson asks readers to meditate on the biblical story of the disabled man who met Jesus at the well called Bethesda.
“Do you want to get well?” Jesus asked the man.
“Place yourself in this encounter and hear Jesus ask you the same,” Johnson wrote. “Do you want to get well?”
Most of all, Johnson, said, taking care of your body doesn’t have to be difficult.
“I don’t see it as a struggle anymore,” she said. “I see it as a privilege. I wake up and make healthier foods for my family and share that with other people.”