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The Johns Hopkins Health Review is one of the world’s leading health authorities and it has just published positive research on what the American Council on Exercise calls ‘faith-based fitness’, one of the year’s top trends. This trend shows how public health and religion can assist one another. We bring you an edited version of the Review feature by Shiela Mulrooney Eldred just published.

Two years ago, Jason Jordan-Griffin had a health concern, one that afflicts some 70 per cent of his fellow Americans. He was overweight. The pastor at Union Memorial United Methodist Church in Baltimore felt the burden not just of these extra pounds but also of the mixed message he was sending from the pulpit. He worried that he wasn’t living up to the tenets of 1 Corinthians 3:16, which says in part: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.”Jordan-Griffin believed he should practice what he preached. “When you start talking about health and the body being a temple, and that our job is to care for it, I realized I couldn’t stand up and preach those things without doing it,” Jordan-Griffin says. 

In 2015, Jordan-Griffin and his church participated in a six-week program being run by Johns Hopkins Community Health Partnership and the Center for a Livable Future of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Called “Food and Faith,” the workshop combined lessons on healthy eating created by a nutritionist, with Scripture-based nutrition reflections supplied by a minister.  It focused on evidenced-based nutrition, and on eating as an environmental and a moral act, not just as a matter of basic sustenance. Food, the program emphasized, connects humans to the earth, to one another, and to the creator. The instructors taught how eating healthy, sustainable, and humanely produced whole foods could improve health. The course also showed how a congregation could work as a community to eat well, and support one another in the process.

The program’s faith-based grounding, combined with its nutritional counseling, resonated with Jordan-Griffin. Soon, he was swapping the usual fried chicken and canned green beans at his family’s dinner table for sautéed chicken breast and fresh greens with lemon juice, tomatoes, and turmeric. Jordan-Griffin overhauled his family’s eating habits, and in the process he lost 20 pounds.

The Food and Faith workshop was an initiative of the Baltimore Faith and Food Project, which was founded in 2007. Since then, it has partnered with some 225 congregations in the Baltimore area to help deliver the message of healthy eating through a spiritual and social justice approach. The Johns Hopkins project is not alone in its mission. Across the country, health advocates and faith leaders are working together to spread the word in churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques about good eating habits. Today, congregants are working out in churches and planting fruit orchards in cities, and some ministries, such as Garden Church in Long Beach, California, have even been founded with food as their central mission.

In 2016, the American Council on Exercise recognized faith-based fitness as one of the year’s top trends, citing the proliferation of gyms and even personal trainers at churches across the nation.

The aim is to bring clear information about a healthy lifestyle and attainable food goals into congregations in order to help reverse a disturbing national trend. The most recent stats from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that 36.5 percent of U.S. adults are considered obese, and half the population consumes daily less than a cup of fruit and less than 1.5 cups of vegetables. These habits correlate with rising levels of heart disease, the leading cause of death in the United States, and the prevalence of diabetes.

Meanwhile, an estimated 86 million people have prediabetes, which is characterized by high blood sugar, but nine out of 10 of them don’t know it. This makes it tricky for traditional public health initiatives to help through clinics or hospitals, says Anne Palmer, director of the Food Communities and Public Health program, based in the Center for a Livable Future. “There are people you reach through congregations that you won’t reach in any other way,” Palmer says. “Public health practitioners are using a range of strategies in an attempt to change behavior, looking for a more effective method. Why not religion? Not just the network of religion but the language and methods of communication of religious institutions to convey our important health messages.”

The Baltimore Faith and Food Project staff has helped plant 50 community gardens that have grown thousands of pounds of produce, and has offered cooking classes to teach how to use the harvest. The program hosts regular educational outreach events and trainings to inform people about food system issues—such as how to eat well even in food deserts that lack good grocery stores—and how to increase self-efficacy and adopt sustainable food practices. The staff has hosted radio town hall–styled conversations on nutrition, while downloadable curricula for summer camp and Sunday school help teach kids healthy habits. From growing food and mastering composting, to bringing healthier dishes to the Sunday potluck, the Baltimore Faith and Food Project has been successful in changing how people relate to one another and their food. “The message that comes through in the faith community is a different message. It’s an emotional connection,” Palmer says.

Pairing food and faith is nothing new, of course. Jewish dietary laws prohibit certain meats and all shellfish, as well as any food preparation that combines milk and meat. In Buddhism, nonviolence means no meat, dairy, or eggs, and dessert is reserved for special occasions. Christianity professes the communion of bread and wine, while the Bible warns against excess: “It is not good to eat much honey, nor is it glorious to seek one’s own glory.” Islam avoids “haram” foods and practices fasting. The Koran says to “eat and drink but waste not in extravagance.”

Judaism, points out Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, has always been an agrarian religion. In 2011, Cardin founded the Baltimore Orchard Project to help bring fruit to people living in food deserts, and today her group has planted trees with over 100 organizations. “The production and consumption of food—our kosher laws—play a significant role in our practice and identity,” Cardin says. “But many other faith communities also emphasize what you eat and the way you eat it. Many other faiths want to know that the land and animals were taken care of in producing food, and many offer some sort of structure of prayer around eating. To these religions, meals are not about just stuffing food in your mouth. They see meals as a sacred act in communion with others.”

The trend of food coupled with faith gained momentum in 2011 when a California pastor named Rick Warren promoted the Daniel Plan, a 40-day Bible-based diet, to his congregants. The program, he claims, has helped more than 15,000 people lose over 260,000 pounds, in large part because it fosters community support. Changing a habit is never easy, particularly when it comes to food, but this diet works, according to the literature about the program, “when done in a supportive community of friends because God designed us to thrive in relationships.”

A small but growing body of research shows the benefits of the religion-meets-healthy eating approach. One of the first studies on faith and food, published in 2005 in Health Psychology, focused on a program implemented in 16 African-American churches in Atlanta where obesity was prevalent among the middle- and upper-class congregants. The researchers recruited 1,056 participants and trained church members in counseling their peers on diet habits and on meaningful reasons for change. Pastors were also asked to mention the program from the pulpit, and churches offered healthy food options at events and celebrations. After one year, the participants averaged a one-serving-a-day uptick in fruit and vegetable consumption compared to a control group.

Researcher Ken Resnicow, a professor of health behavior at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health, calls it a “modest but legitimate” effect. “It’s not enough to make a big dent in morbidity or mortality,” Resnicow says of the results, “but such interventions have few downsides. There are no side effects from trial medications. No risks from experimental procedures.”