Dr. Jennifer Nolan on the spirituality of weight loss

Dr. Jennifer Nolan (photo provided)

Jennifer Nolan is a California-based Catholic laywoman, cognitive neuropsychologist, author, weight loss counselor and public speaker. She holds a Ph.D. in psychology and an M.A. in social sciences from the Department of Cognitive Science at the University of California, Irvine, as well as a B.A. in psychology from Loyola Marymount University.

Dr. Nolan currently consults with clients on stroke, dementia and attention deficit related issues. Before consulting, she co-founded and directed Advanced Recovery Rehabilitation Center, a therapeutic clinic for stroke and brain injury patients. She also taught several psychology courses at Loyola Marymount and U.C. Irvine. She is married and has four children.


After losing 50 pounds, Dr. Nolan wrote “Dr. Jen's Dip Diet: Book of Daniel Diet for Life," which she published on June 8. On Oct. 19, I interviewed her by email about the new book.

Why did you write this book?

For the first time in my life, I lost weight. I’ve always been overweight, so when I finally transformed my figure around 2010, people kept asking me how I accomplished this, and the project mushroomed from there. Early this summer, I was asked to speak at a Catholic homeschool conference on helping our kids stay trim and eat healthy, so it was time to finish my book. As I see it, there is a tremendous need to help people diet effectively, with God’s help. And, that applies to helping our children and teens stay trim too.

Who is your audience?

My audience is anyone who needs to lose a few (or many) pounds, or who cooks or cares for someone who does.

In the book, you propose a “dip diet.” What is that?

I was a fat child, an overweight teen and an obese young adult. I tried diet after diet, and nothing worked because I never learned how to like vegetables. I tried shake diets and gained the weight back. I tried low-fat diets, and gained weight. Low-carb diets just made me high-crab (grumpy) instead! I spent a lot of money on commercial diet plans to lose only half a pound a week. The problem was that I was raised with sugar four times a day, and with mushy fruit and vegetables. Before we were married, my husband used to joke that my fridge was the place that fruit and vegetables went to die. Nothing worked for me, and I gave up. In psychology, it’s called “learned helplessness” when you try and try and always fail, so give up altogether.

In 2010, my “aha” moment occurred while reading the Old Testament’s Book of Daniel during my nightly prayer and spiritual reading time. In Chapter 1, four men ate vegetables exclusively for ten days and looked better than their counterparts. It was then that I had the realization that I needed to learn to eat vegetables, but how? After spotting the dip aisle in my local store, I realized I could dip vegetables in delicious dips like Bacon Cheddar Ranch dip or Greek Yogurt Chive dip or guacamole or cheese dips, and actually enjoy them for the first time in my life. Dr. Jen’s Dip Diet was born, and I proceeded to lose 50 pounds, not once but twice, since I had a baby after losing the weight the first time.

Your book refers to the Book of Daniel diet, a biblical weight loss plan that Protestant megachurch pastor Rick Warren has popularized in recent years. In what way is your dip diet Christian or biblical?

I wrote Dr. Jen’s Dip Diet to be ecumenical, but heavily Catholic. I wanted people of all faiths to be able to have an effective diet, but also recognize that dieting requires courage and perseverance, something best done with God. In the book, I have a rather in-depth spiritual look at "dieting: why me?" I also look at the benefits of prayer and fasting, the topic of gluttony according to St. Thomas Aquinas, an intro to the saints, etc. 

The Book of Daniel fast has been around for ages, but it’s an all-vegetable fast that is unsustainable for most people. My goal was to create something that was livable, not a temporary fast. By keeping vegetables as the mainstay, but add fruit, protein, and dips, I made it a lifestyle change, not a diet or fast. That is why I called it the “Book of Daniel Diet for Life.”

What makes your diet different from other weight loss plans?

Dr. Jen’s Dip Diet requires no counting calories or points, tracking, weighing food, hunger, surgery, pills, expensive equipment or reality TV shows! Food is unlimited in portion (even dips), and I really don’t want people counting or tracking because they feel like they’re on a diet when they do these tasks. The Dip Diet is a lifestyle change, and that’s why it works in the long run. It’s not dangerous at all; in general, it’s a low-wheat plan, but there are plenty of carbs with fruit, corn, peas, beans, sweet potatoes, etc. I even include “splurge” items that are okay to eat in moderation, such as frozen fruit, Medjool dates, a handful of corn chips and extra dark chocolate wedges. Dips are more of a psychological/behavioral trick to help us eat volumes of vegetables.

What do you want readers to take away from this book?

I want them to have an effective diet, plus embrace the spiritual assistance the Trinity and the saints offer us when we diet. This combination amounts to a one-two punch to conquer obesity.

How does your Catholic background influence your approach to weight loss and psychology?

My Catholicism permeates everything I do, and all that I am. I love the Trinity and saints with such passion, I find I can do nothing without them. Along with my family, they are my joy, my life and my reason for living. Weight loss and psychology are no different in that I cannot look at them without Christ. It was during my nightly spiritual prayer time and reading that I found the Book of Daniel. It is with spiritual perspective that I help people with stroke or clients with Attention Deficit or dementia.

I find I am unable to separate psychology and theology because we ourselves cannot separate them within ourselves; they are intertwined, and when one is ignored, it is much more difficult to be wholly healthy and not off-balance. Weight loss is no different. Why should we try to lose weight by our will power alone? The devil wants to destroy us by tempting us to eat gluttonously, so why not fight temptation with the most powerful force in the universe? Christ is the bread of life, and he nourishes us far more than food.

You were trained as a cognitive neuropsychologist, but weight loss books tend to be written more often by medical doctors. How does your professional training and clinical experience relate to what you’re doing in this book?

Yes, most diet books are written by M.D.’s or nutritionists, and rightly so, but many of them have never had to lose weight themselves. I am a cognitive psychologist who has struggled with my weight and dieting all my life, and who has discovered a behavioral trick to my lifelong health and weight loss. It’s that simple. My professional training really had little to do with it other than experimentation in my own life to see what actually worked. Ironically, I had access to volumes of medical literature on how to lose weight, and none of it worked for me. In order to lose weight forever, I needed to learn to eat vegetables in bulk, and the best way to do this was to allow myself unlimited fun dips (without MSG).

As a Catholic and product of Jesuit education, you are rooted in a particular religious tradition. In your view, what role does spirituality or prayer play in dieting?

According to Loyola Press, Ignatian spirituality is a “spirituality for everyday life. It insists that God is present in our world and active in our lives. It is a pathway to deeper prayer, good decisions guided by keen discernment, and an active life of service to others.” Daily spirituality that permeates everything we do is essential in both running the diet race and finishing the marathon of weight loss. It is a spiritual battle. Pray, and pray all day long in order to reach your goal. That’s the only way I was successful.

The reverse can also be asked: what role does dieting play in prayer? That’s easy: our Catholic faith tradition along with many other faith traditions require fasting paired with prayer to repair a broken relationship with God. I use my Dip Diet as my fast on days that I choose to fast and pray. My relationship with God heals, and I lose a couple of pounds!

Where do you find God in your work?

Everywhere, because need is everywhere. Christ is present in the poor, right? There is a poverty of spirit in someone who is overweight or obese, and it is apparent to me just looking into an obese person’s eyes. I know: I felt the sadness, depression, physical discomfort, emotional pain and learned helplessness of obesity. As an overweight person, I watched on the sidelines as all my friends were getting married, having kids, wearing pretty clothes, and the hurt and loneliness I felt was overwhelming. Yet obesity is predominantly overlooked as a spiritual and psychological problem, and seen only as a physical problem. This is a gross error. Obesity is the elephant in America’s spiritual living room that no one talks about. I have not once heard a sermon on it from the pulpit. Yet many of our religious, ministers and laity are overweight. 

When St. Pope John Paul II gave his “Theology of the Body” talks, it was in 1979-84, when obesity was not much of an issue. (In 1980, 4.8 percent of men and 7.9 percent of women were obese worldwide.) Now, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control state that the percent of American adults 20 years and older who are overweight—including obesity—is 69 percent (2011-2012) and the percent of children and teens aged 2-19 who are overweight—including obesity—is approximately 32 percent. The numbers of obesity alone are expected to rise to one-half of all Americans by 2030. I surmise that St. Pope John Paul II might have given a talk on the topic of obesity today as part of his “Theology of the Body.” So when I provide an approach to weight loss that is God-centered, people soak it up. They need Him to help them conquer the problem they cannot conquer alone, just as I did. God is present and needed in obesity work, but we have to invite Him.

How do you pray? 

In my opinion, I think Descartes got it slightly wrong. For me, the universal truth is: "I pray, therefore I am." I wake up asking Mary to help me be a kind and loving parent and to help me through the day. I say a daily rosary with my family. I'm in constant prayer during the day, since Jesus, Mary, the saints and the Holy Spirit are invaluable to guiding us through our daily lives. Then I end every day with spiritual reading of some sort (writing of the saints, or Bible reading), and open myself to what God has to say to me that day. I think of him all day long, asking for help, praising him for gifts and consolations, lifting up others in need to him. And I ask Jesus to use my hands and mouth to do his work ministering to others. Every breath is a prayer to him who created me. Thus, "I pray, therefore I am."

You mention saints in your book. What saints have helped you the most in your journey to greater spiritual, physical, and emotional health?

My book is dedicated to my dear love, St. Anthony, who has bestowed on me seemingly hundreds of miracles, large and small, and to the Little Flower, St. Therese. St. Therese has promised to spend her heaven doing good upon earth and has thus given a multitude of miracles too, including physical healings. Even the little miracles, like finding something before I can even say, "St. Anth—" increase my faith, show me that God is constantly near me, and give me the emotional and physical strength to continue on yet another day of Dip Dieting.

While on a homeschool field trip whale-watching a few years ago, we had seen almost nothing in about an hour. As the trip was drawing to a close, I remembered his miracle of the fish, and prayed, "St. Anthony, could you please show us something?" I was thinking maybe a whale. Instead, within five minutes, we had 1,000-2,000 dolphins swim with our little boat, and they swam with us for 20 minutes in a bay. The story and video footage eventually hit MSNBC, which reported that their "scientists were baffled." The ocean was so packed with these beautiful animals, it was a sea of pulsating grey, and St. Anthony was responsible.

The point is that our saints hear us. When we need a spiritual boost, they respond. When we need help fighting temptation against damaging food, they respond. And they lift our emotional states and console us when we are in need. It's like talking to a best friend who really loves you, and who can help enact real positive change in your life. This is compared with turning to food for consolation, which instead enacts destruction. 

In the book, you talk about spiritual reading as a better coping strategy for stress than eating. How has spiritual reading helped you? 

Spiritual reading is how God lets me hear him. I have never had a locution, but when I pray nightly about the events of the day, issues on my mind or do a daily examination of conscience, I read from the Bible or other spiritual works and think about how he might be guiding me. When something troubling happens, I also turn to that reading now instead of turning to food. It is usually much more effective because I hear Him consoling me, encouraging me or opening my eyes to another perspective. And it has fewer calories! 

How does being overweight affect a person spiritually?

As a formerly overweight person, I know firsthand that obesity is a poverty of spirit. Mother Teresa said that the greatest poverty is to feel unwanted, and obesity can certainly give a person that feeling. I know—I felt it many times.

To me, food was all about consolation, reward and celebration. When food is the center of your life, it is a meager substitute for God. Food could not fill my God hole, as much as I tried to make it do so. It was a prison for me. I kept turning to food, and eventually that cell door closed, and I was a prisoner in my overweight body, loathing what I had become yet obsessed with obtaining more. Truly, this is a poverty of spirit, and can't help but affect our relationship with God. The good news is that our God is a jealous God, and wants us for himself, so leads us back to him if we allow. 

How does losing weight affect a person spiritually?

Losing weight is liberating spiritually, emotionally and physically. When you're not constantly giving in to every temptation, you are free. Free to open the portal for God's graces. Free to give to others. Free to love yourself. Free to do God's will in your life. After losing 50 lbs., I still struggle with temptation and overindulgence, but generally the chains of slavery have fallen off, and I'm free. And the daily journey of losing weight deepens our reliance on God, thereby deepening our spirituality.

What does God desire for overweight people?

I believe that God desires us to let go of all that enslaves us. That includes anything that we are addicted to, including food. He wants us to be truly happy and healthy. He gave us the gift of a body, so it's our job to care for it and not abuse it. And I believe he wants us to be healthy so we can serve our families and others. Mother Teresa also said that we should give ourselves fully to God on the condition that we believe much more in his love than in our own weakness. If we give our food temptations to him and believe that his love is stronger than our weakness, then we cannot help but lose weight.

What are the greatest gifts God has given you?

Dark chocolate (kidding!). My husband, my family, my friends, but mostly the gift of himself. He died for me, so that I may be free. And he gave me the Dip Diet, so I can help others be free too.

What are your hopes for the future?

In my wildest dreams, that Dr. Jen’s Dip Diet will become known as the most effective lifestyle plan available for weight loss and healthy living, and that it will be instrumental in reversing our increasing obesity trend. This is my ministry and my future: to help thousands of people turn from gluttony and embrace the health and beauty God gave us.

Any final thoughts?

You mean, about chocolate? Definitely!

Sean Salai, S.J., is a contributing writer at America.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Beth Cioffoletti
3 years 4 months ago
I wish I could have seen some of her recipes and food choices, rather than just links to buy her book.
joseph o'leary
3 years 4 months ago
I almost skipped this – how could there be anything "spiritual" about weight loss? A pleasant surprise, and a reminder to not dismiss the struggles of those with food-related health issues. (And yes, at one time our fridge was where vegetables went to die, too!)
Sean Salai, S.J.
3 years 4 months ago

Thanks everyone for reading. I'm grateful that Dr. Nolan's effort to overcome her personal obstacles with the help of God and pscyhology has created some discussion. Let's continue to pray for all who struggle with unhealthy addictions and compulsions, whether they be food-related coping mechanisms or other forms of self-medication for life's pains.


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