Pastor calls flock to God, away from the fridge


Published: Saturday, January 27, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 27, 2007 at 1:21 a.m.
Saving souls is serious business for Annandale, Va., pastor Steve Reynolds. So is losing weight.
Which is why he stepped out from behind the lectern during a service one recent weekend to deliver a blunt message to those crowded into the pews below.
''About 40 percent of you need to lose weight,'' he told his congregation at Capital Baptist Church. ''When you love potluck more than God, it's serious.''
And with that, the preacher, who has lost 70 pounds by relying on God and low carbs, launched a mission to lead his followers into the burgeoning world of religious dieting. ''Our body was given to us by God and for God,'' he said. ''He is the owner. We need to take care of what He's given us.''
Reynolds, the pastor of Capital, is joining a movement that got its start in Christianity but has picked up steam and spread to other religions. Faith-based diet clubs, books and advice programs are prospering. Books advise Buddhists to practice ''transformational nourishment,'' Hindus are told to eat low-fat vegetarian fare.
A recent book for Jewish dieters advises avoiding high-fat holiday and bar mitzvah foods. Some Muslim doctors offer advice on how to use the traditional month-long Ramadan fast for losing weight.
Many faiths condemn overeating and gluttony. ''Be not among winebibbers; among riotous eaters of flesh: For the drunkard and the glutton shall come to poverty,'' reads one Old Testament verse. ''Eat and drink and be not extravagant; surely He does not love the extravagant,'' the Koran advises.
But no faith has seized on the religious approach to weight loss as emphatically as Christianity. Best-selling books such as ''The Maker's Diet'' (more than 2million copies sold), weight-loss plans with names such as ''What Would Jesus Eat?'' and the Web site FatFree4Jesus.org (which this year is expanding into church-based workshops in six states) have attracted millions by using Christian imagery and theology to promote weight loss.
''It's about turning to God to fill up this yearning instead of the refrigerator,'' said Gwen Shamblin, founder of Weigh Down Workshops, which enrolled several hundred thousand people nationwide last year in a diet program that encourages participants to transfer their focus from diets and calories to Jesus Christ.
Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson has developed a $15 weight-loss shake that is marketed nationally through Vitamin Shoppe. More than 1.3 million people have ordered a free diet program he launched in 2004.
Despite all the praying, recent studies have questioned whether faith-based diets work. One 2004 University of Texas study found few links between Christian programs that promote weight reduction and actual weight loss, according to the study's co-author, Mark DeHaven, an associate professor at the University of Texas's Southwestern Medical Center.
Several recent studies have found that Christians are fatter than those of other faiths.
Baptists have the highest rates of obesity - 30 percent, according to a Purdue University study using information from a national survey that gathers data on lifestyle issues. That compares with 17 percent of Catholics and 1percent or less for non-Christians - Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists.
The study's co-author, Purdue sociology professor Kenneth Ferraro, said the reasons for the higher incidence of obesity among Baptists aren't clear. But he speculates that many Baptists' traditional eschewal of alcohol and tobacco might translate into higher food consumption than in other denominations.
Or, as his article says: ''Baptists may find food one of the few available sources of earthly pleasure.''
For Reynolds, 49, the pastor of Capital Baptist, the study's results ring true. ''I can see that,'' he said. He wonders whether high-fat church suppers among many close-knit Baptist religious communities and the Southern food beloved by many Baptists also contribute to the problem.
Whatever the issue, Reynolds said, ''it's not talked about.''
He is determined to change that in his church. And he started with himself.
Fourteen months ago, he faced the fact that, after a lifetime of worshiping at the altar of greasy Southern cooking, he was morbidly obese - 100 pounds overweight - and diabetic.
''My belly was god,'' he recalled.
Reynolds said he asked the Lord for help. He answered, Reynolds said, by bringing him to a passage in Matthew 16: ''If any man wishes to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.''
''God just burned that into my heart,'' Reynolds told worshipers on a recent Sunday in the drawl of his native Lynchburg, Va.
He started denying himself - forgoing his favorite treats - and started walking on a treadmill and lifting weights. God responded: After losing 70 pounds, Reynolds hopes to shake off an additional 30.
And he is leading a 22-week blitz to help others achieve a ''Bod for God.''
The church sent out 25,000 fliers advertising the program to Fairfax County residents and advertised on five local radio stations. Reynolds designed a four-week sermon series and is organizing program participants into groups of 12 (like Jesus's disciples) to meet weekly to support one another.
On the stage at Capital Baptist's auditorium on a recent Sunday, a ''Bod4GOD'' poster hung over the baptismal pool. As worshipers entered, video screens flashed ads for Christian-themed exercise classes called Body & Soul.
A chef was scheduled to take the stage for a low-fat cooking demonstration yesterday, between the hymns and the sermon.
Among the more than 200 who jammed the church's gym for an introductory luncheon after the worship services earlier this month was Sylviana Nica, 28, a Falls Church office worker. It was her first visit to Capital Baptist, and she came after hearing radio ads for Bod4God. She has struggled for years to lose weight and live healthier and, as a Christian, she said, the religious slant of the program appealed to her.
''I've been praying for this,'' she said.
Mary Knisley drove 85 miles from her home in Cross Junction, Va., where she works for a missionary organization, to sign up.
''For me, the Bible is in first place in my life,'' said Knisley, 58, who, like Reynolds, wants to lose 100 pounds. ''Because of that, this is a natural thing for me to use the word of God.''

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