Churches across the nation have found a new way to improve the lives of congregants – helping them lose weight.
Whether the motivation is self-improvement, a closer relationship with God, or to raise funds for their church, a growing number of people are turning to their local church rather than a weight-loss expert to shed the pounds.
Take Minister Thea Wilson of the African American-membered First Baptist Church of Glenarden (FBCG) in Upper Marlboro, Md , for instance. She lost 80 pounds through a unique church-designed weight-loss program that teaches self-discipline based on Biblical principles.
In FBCG's "Fit for the Kingdom" ministry, participants are given Bible studies in conjunction with diet restrictions so they grow in faith as their waist size shrinks.
"We teach people how to replace a relationship that has been developed with food or any other thing that is controlling them and replace that with a relationship with God," said Wilson, who is associate minister at FBCG and director of the "Fit for the Kingdom" ministry.
"A lot of people run to food for comfort for reasons other than just to fuel their bodies."
Participants are taught to wait for their "God-given" physiological hunger signals – such as a stomach growl or burning sensation – before eating, and to stop eating once their hunger is satisfied. Other tips include cutting portions in half and eating on smaller plates.
"We are not going to deprive you of the food that you love," Wilson said chuckling, noting that participants are not forced to eat planned meals. "We want to try to re-teach you how to eat and how to feed the body."
Bible studies in the weight loss program are especially important for people addicted to food, Wilson emphasized. Counselors spend 10 weeks teaching the Bible and talking to participants on how they can have a "more loving relationship with their Creator." A prayer life and praise and worship are also encouraged in the program.
"We say that your restriction is your knowing whether or not you are obeying God," Wilson said. "Because when your heart is right your outside will follow…We train people to have inner control because when the inside is controlled then the outside will be controlled."
On average, participants in the "Fit for the Kingdom" program lose 2 pounds per week.
Since the ministry's inception in 1997, several thousands have gone through the weight lost program.
Besides aesthetic reasons, the weight loss ministry was also designed as a life-saving strategy for the African-American community. High blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes linked to obesity are statistically more common and more severe in black Americans than in other races.
"In the African-American community, the church is very important," said Darlene Breaux, a Weight Watchers meeting leader to the Houston Chronicle. "In church we get the message about being a good steward. A lot of things that are ailing us can be addressed in a change in diet, lifestyle."
Breaux is helping to oversee the Weight Watchers "Lose the Weight. Give it Back Church Challenge" currently taking place in the Houston-area. Currently, four predominantly black churches in the city are competing to win $5,000 for their church by having the highest percentage of participating members lose five percent of their starting weight.
The challenge is part of Weight Watchers' initiative to help the black community tackle health concerns related to obesity.
Some 400 people are enrolled in the event which also teaches portion control and making healthier food choices with the goal of living a more God-pleasing life.
"We're going to get ourselves healthier. We're going to take care of our temple," Breaux said.
"God didn't send it [food] smothered. He didn't send it here with lots of salt on it. God did not create pork chops with gravy on it. We have to start enjoying food how God put it here on earth," the Weight Watchers representative said. "We need to start looking at the fruit and vegetables."
Weight Watchers says Houston is the first city in its church initiative, but it anticipates expanding to other cities.
In addition to localized weight-loss programs, Christians also have the option of enrolling in a nationwide faith-based program called Body Temple Wellness.
The program recently launched its 10-city tour and weight-loss challenge where local churches in each city will be encouraged to participate in the 12-week Body Temple National Weight Loss Church Challenge.
Body Temple Wellness founder Shannon Tanner, a 15-year veteran in the weight-loss and wellness industry and the author of the weight loss guide Diets Don't Work, But Jesus Does, believes that faith wins at weight loss. Tanner lost 70 pounds and has maintained her weight for more than 10 years.
"Fit for the Kingdom" director Wilson concluded, "When you do things right to please God it doesn't matter if your favorite food is in front of you, you know that it will displease God if you're not hungry to eat it. Then you won't do it."