Should Catholics diet?
I first noticed it a couple of years ago. More and more often, the women on my Facebook feed—many of whom I had connected with through private Catholic women’s groups—were posting side-by-side “before and after” photos showcasing their dramatic weight loss. In the captions, they all credited a certain multilevel marketing company with giving them back their hope, joy and freedom. They said they had the energy to play with their kids again; they had the confidence to don form-fitting dresses and enjoy date nights with their husbands again; some even quit their day jobs to spend their days as “health coaches,” spreading the good news of an 800-calorie diet, one packet of dehydrated food at a time.
I am no stranger to diets. Historically, Weight Watchers (now known simply as WW) has been my preferred approach; it helped me shed unwanted pounds in high school and after the birth of each of my daughters. But as I got more into fitness after baby number two, I started to get frustrated that WW could not quite get me back to the weight I had been in college. I generally had healthy eating habits, but I felt like I needed a little jump start—something temporary that would help me get to that coveted “goal weight.” So I succumbed. Against my better judgment, I reached out to one of the women posting slender “after” photos and ordered a box of overpriced diet food, which promised to put my body into “a gentle, fat-burning state.”
My coach was a Catholic woman I had known online for several years. Kind and attentive, she emphasized that this program was “not a diet” but a lifestyle change, one that required a lasting mindset shift. One of the core principles she emphasized was the need to break my emotional ties to food. Instead, she told me, I should think of it only as “fuel” for my body. When I told her that I planned to eat the food I was serving at my daughter’s fourth birthday party, she gently pushed back, encouraging me “to get to the bottom of this.” “Why is it,” she asked me, “that we’ve come to a point in the way we interact with people that we feel that it’s a necessity to include food and drinks when spending time with the people that we love? Would we tell those people, ‘You’re not enjoyable unless I have this food or drink?’”
This question was a wake-up call for me—just not in the way she meant it to be.
For goodness’ sake, Jesus had food at his gatherings. He still does. The human desire to eat and drink together is not some sinful modern weakness. It is an essential part of our humanity, with deep sacramental meaning. From Christ’s very first miracle at the wedding feast at Cana to the eucharistic meal shared by Catholics all over the world—which the church tells us is the source and summit of the Christian life—food and drink have always played a major role in Christ’s ministry to us. They are how he communicates his love for us. And they are how we communicate our love for one another, too, from the daily grind of making dinner for our families to the instinctive response to bring casseroles in times of crisis.
The language of “fuel,” too, seemed wrong to me. No matter what Descartes might say, my body is not a mere machine to be bent to my will. Exerting the will power necessary to ignore your growling stomach and stick to a restrictive diet can feel freeing, even oddly empowering. But it also creates an adversarial relationship. It risks making your body into your enemy, an unruly and rebellious beast that must be controlled, rather than an essential aspect of your individual personhood through which you experience God’s love, made incarnate in the physical world. If taken too far, it runs the risk of deepening the division between your soul and body rather than helping you achieve wholeness and integration.
This question was a wake-up call for me—just not in the way she meant it to be.
So I dropped the diet. I started searching for an alternative way of thinking about food—one that would align with Catholic anthropology. From Facebook groups and Instagram influencers to science-focused podcasts, peer-reviewed nutrition research and lengthy books on the psychology and physiology of intuitive eating, I dove deep into the multi-faceted and diverse world of the anti-diet movement. Some of what I found there vindicated my reservations about intensely restrictive diets. But other aspects gave me pause. The declaration that our food choices have no moral weight, for example, seems to contradict the church’s natural-law-based ethics. And the claim that all food restriction is psychologically unhealthy is difficult to square with a faith tradition that calls us to fast as a means of growing closer to God.
In the end, I found that all the latest science and psychology falls short if it is not paired with an accurate understanding of why our bodies matter and how our choices gradually shape who we become. Strange as it may sound, if you really want to be healthy, understanding virtue ethics is the place to start.
The Godmothers of Intuitive Eating
I am far from alone in my sense that there is something deeply wrong with the diet industry. In recent years, the anti-diet movement has exploded, with countlesssocial media influencers, podcasts (“Food Psych,” “Maintenance Phase”) and books (Anti-Diet,Health at Every Size)laying out the scientific, psychological and philosophical arguments against diets.
In 1995, two dietitians, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, published a book that introduced the concept ofIntuitive Eating, which they called “a revolutionary anti-diet approach.” They define intuitive eating as “a self-care eating framework, which integrates instinct, emotion, and rational thought.” In their view, diets are harmful because they make what should be an internal process an external one, setting up a cycle in which dieters eventually rebel against restrictions, binge-eat and gain back the weight they lost. This psychological phenomenon is exacerbated by the body’s natural response to perceived famine situations: slowing down the metabolism and increasing appetite and food storage in an effort to protect itself.
Tribole and Resch lay out10 principles that help recovering dieters “cultivate attunement to the physical sensations that arise from within your body to get both your biological and psychological needs met” and to remove “the obstacles and disruptors to attunement, which usually come from the mind in the form of rules, beliefs, and thoughts.” The idea is that by getting rid of punitive food rules and convincing yourself that all food is available to you if and when you want it, you can gradually rid yourself of the out-of-control urge to overeat. Although it is not uncommon for this process to lead to weight loss, Tribole and Resch emphasize that “the pursuit of intentional weight loss is a failed paradigm, which creates health problems: including weight stigma, weight cycling, and eating disorders.” To become an intuitive eater, they insist, one must let go of the pursuit of weight loss and simply listen to one’s body.
To become an intuitive eater, advocates of the practice insist, one must let go of the pursuit of weight loss and simply listen to one’s body.
Intuitive eating has exploded in popularity, spawning countless spin-offs that vary in their likeness to Tribole and Resch’s approach. They are nearly unanimous, however, in their rejection of attempts to lose weight. In fact, in most anti-diet spaces, any talk of “IWL” (intentional weight loss) is either heavily policed, requiring a trigger or content warning, or banned altogether. In such forums, people—mainly women—find emotional support for their struggles with body image and commiserate about the challenges they face when shopping for clothes, flying, seeking medical care and merely existing in a world made for smaller people.
All Bodies Are Good Bodies
One of the most thought-provoking figures in this community isAmanda Martinez Beck, who describes herself as a “fat activist.” She’s also a faithful Catholic and the author of two books:Lovely: How I Learned to Embrace the Body God Gave Me andMore of You: The Fat Girl’s Field Guide to the Modern World. Ms. Beck draws on Catholic teaching to argue movingly that “all bodies are good bodies”—even fat ones. She beautifully describes the ways that our unique stories are written into our bodies, made incarnate in the union of our bodies and souls. She also pushes back against our culture’s equation of thinness with moral goodness, reclaiming the word “fat” as a neutral descriptor of body size.
Building on Tribole and Beck’s contention that “health is not a moral imperative,” Ms. Beck adds a theological justification to the rather counterintuitive argument that health should not be the goal for our bodies. In Lovely, she writes:
When we define the goodness of our body as its fitness, ability, size, strength, or absence of illness, we demonstrate that we don’t understand the purpose for which God created each human being. We were not created to be useful. We were not created merely to do things for God and for other people. We were created for a relationship with God, and any person—regardless of the state of their body—can have a relationship with God. That is what makes a body good: the capacity for relationship with God and with others. Therein lies its dignity.
This line of thought flies in the face of the ideology of radical autonomy that dominates our culture, and it contradicts the materialistic and objectifying messages that reduce human bodies to consumer goods. It is dangerously easy to start assessing your own worth based on your appearance, succumbing to feelings of guilt, failure and shame if you do not live up to your weight loss and exercise goals. But Beck is right: “If we can change our mind-set toward the body from one of whipping it into submission to one of rejoicing in its eternal goal of relationship with God, we can find joy and peace.” Furthermore, concern for health—particularly the health of others—often serves as a smokescreen for an aesthetic or moral aversion to fatness.
Still, something about Beck’s explanation of the telos—a Greek word denoting a thing’s ultimate purpose—of the human body as relationship nagged at me. It certainly seems right to say that our purpose as human beings is relationship with God; as the Baltimore Catechism taught me, God made us “to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in heaven.” But is that really the telos of the body, as such? If we can accept that God loves us as we are, that we are worthy of love at any size, is it wrong to also desire to be thinner and to take steps to reach that goal?
Health, Natural Law and Personal Discernment
In the natural-law-based reasoning that undergirds the church’s teaching in other areas, such as bioethics or sexual morality, we begin by identifying the purpose and function of various parts of the body. Intentionally thwarting that purpose—say, by mutilating or amputating a properly functioning body part—is morally wrong. Think of the reproductive organs, for example, whose biological purpose is procreation and whose spiritual purpose is unification with one’s spouse. Intentionally thwarting either one of those purposes undermines our flourishing and happiness as human beings. Like all sins, such actions make it harder for us to love and let ourselves be loved by God.
On a spiritual level, eating, like sex, has a relational aspect.
In the context of eating, the biological purpose is clear: to provide the nutrients and energy that our bodies need to function well. On a spiritual level, eating, like sex, has a relational aspect. That is why it has played such a prominent role in all human societies and in the liturgy of the Catholic faith. Even when we eat alone, we can affirm the innate goodness of our created bodies, thanking God for them and nourishing them gratefully and lovingly. But rather than focusing solely on relationship, as Beck does, perhaps it makes more sense to think about a hierarchy of goods or purposes that we aim at, with relationship with God being the most important as the overarching goal of our lives. If our pursuit of the legitimate goal of health becomes disordered, whether through obsessive fixation or through neglect, it could prevent us from pursuing our ultimate purpose.
To see if I was on the right track here, I reached out to Catholic University of America philosophy professorMelissa Moschella. She told me:
because the body is not just something that we walk around in but is actually essential and intrinsic to our overall identity, the body has dignity, and the good of the person qua bodily–namely, health–is a genuine good that is worthy of pursuit for its own sake.
Now, that doesn’t mean that health always has to be our number one priority. Most of the moral life on a day-to-day basis is actually about figuring out a reasonable priority among competing goods.... What are the goods that I dedicate most of my time and energy to? In a way, that’s what vocational discernment is all about.
Although it affirms the reality of objective human goods, this natural-law-based framework places an enormous emphasis on individual discernment. A mom at home with small children probably cannot spend as much time exercising as a young man who is training to join the Marines. Of course, discernment extends beyond the core question of vocation, and it demands self-awareness. Those with a history of disordered eating, for example, should steer clear of any eating plan that will reactivate those harmful thought processes and behaviors, thereby undermining both physical and mental health.
Of course, saying that health is an objective good does not tell us how to define or measure it. As those who promoteHealth at Every Size point out, there are serious problems with assuming that reductive measures like the body mass index provide an accurate and comprehensive representation of a person’s health. Behaviors like regular exercise are often a better gauge and a more helpful goal to aim for than a particular size or weight. Even so, it is hard to deny that severe obesity is correlated with many negative health outcomes (as is extremely low body weight, though that is far less stigmatized in our culture). The causes of obesity are complex and multifaceted, going far beyond “calories in, calories out.” For some people, losing weight may be difficult or even impossible, no matter how strong their will power is. It is factually and morally wrong to look at someone who is fat and presume to judge their character, health or habits.
Those who champion the cause of “fat liberation” see our culture’s obsession with thinness as a social justice issue.
Still, when making choices about what goods to pursue in our own lives, as far as our vocations and circumstances allow, it is prudent to do what we can to cultivate habits that will lead to improvements in biomarkers like blood pressure, cholesterol, muscle mass and—yes—weight. For those who do not struggle with disordered eating, a reasonable, moderate diet plan—one focused on gradually shifting patterns of eating rather than imposing strict rules that demonize certain foods—may be a helpful tool in reaching this goal.
Fat Liberation, Social Justice and Fasting
Moving beyond the individual question of how to eat, those who champion the cause of “fat liberation” see our culture’s obsession with thinness as a social justice issue. They raise awareness of the fact that people with larger bodies face widespread discrimination. Sadly, this is true even within the medical establishment, where serious health problems are often ignored or waved away with a blanket prescription to lose weight. Fat liberationistsgenerally embrace the framework of intersectionality, arguing that the experiences of fat people must be understood through the lens of power structures, privilege and oppression.
In her more recent work, Amanda Martinez Beck has moved toward this more structural approach, combining it with a Hebraic-influenced emphasis on the communal nature of worship and of salvation. In some ways, this is very much in line with the church’s teaching on the reality of “structures of sin.” But, as in discussions over other fraught issues involving unjust social structures, such as our country’s history of racism, it can be hard to find the right balance between the individual and the collective. It is easy to overemphasize free will and autonomy, ignoring social preconditions and their effects on one’s actions. By contrast, fat liberation, like other movements that emphasize intersectionality, can tend to lean too far in the other direction, overemphasizing the social causes and overlooking the power of the individual.
Consider fasting. Dieting and fasting have very different motivations, but they often involve very similar behaviors. When I spoke with her, I asked Ms. Beck how she reconciles church teaching on fasting with her general wariness of food restriction. She answered by referencing Isaiah 58, where the prophet asks, “What is the Lord’s chosen fast?” She emphasized that in Catholic teaching the purpose of fasting is to create space for almsgiving and feeding the hungry. “Can we see fasting as a corporate practice rather than an individual practice, for the purposes of feeding the poor?” she asked.
In other words, Beck sees the potential positive impact of fasting from food not as something personal and internal, such as growth in the virtue of temperance, but as something societal, such as bringing our attention to the needs of those in our community who face food insecurity. However, Beck actually thinks fasting from food isn’t a good idea for most people today. “This is where I come in conflict with a lot of church history,” she admits, “because I don’t think fasting from food in our culture is actually God’s chosen fast.” She said that “because diet culture is so prominent, it’s almost impossible” to fast without “having a secondary or primary motive of changing one’s body.”
“Can we see fasting as a corporate practice rather than an individual practice, for the purposes of feeding the poor?”
This last point is certainly worth considering as we make choices about whether to integrate fasting into our spiritual practices. Still, Beck is arguing for a fundamentally different understanding of fasting than the church has traditionally taught. St. Thomas Aquinas, for example, wrote that “fasting is useful as atoning for and preventing sin, and as raising the mind to spiritual things. And everyone is bound by the natural dictate of reason to practice fasting as far as it is necessary for these purposes.” In other words, the purpose of fasting is not meant to be purely social but also—perhaps primarily—interior. And although the specific details of required fasts (on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, for example) are positive laws promulgated by the church, to which there can be exceptions, Aquinas argued that it is actually a universal demand of the natural law that we all must fast in some form.
In general, fasting can be a powerful means of breaking disordered attachments for the sake of reordering our appetites to be in accord with reason, allowing us to be more fully open to God’s will and more able to receive His love. Periodically subjecting our appetites to external restraints can help free us from habits that undermine our own happiness and holiness. But fasting is a practice that requires a great deal of personal discernment, and perhaps even guidance from a spiritual director. As Dr. Moschella told me:
What is helpful for a particular person, in terms of growth in self-mastery, will very much depend on the situation. So, for a person…[who is] prone to an eating disorder, emphasis on fasting with regard to food and drink might not be helpful. It might actually be counterproductive, because it could contribute to an obsessive fixation on food, which reflects an unhealthy attitude to the body or an unreasonable desire to have total control over the body or over certain aspects of life.
So that person may need to exercise self-denial in other ways. Their goal should be to develop a healthier, less conflictual relationship towards food—which, after all, is good! And so the question here is moderation.
Habits and Virtues
In assessing our eating habits, we shouldn’t hate our bodies and try to shrink them with rigid, punitive food rules. Nor should we unthinkingly internalize the imperative to be as thin as possible in the name of health. We should seek moderation in our food consumption, assessing the broad patterns of our eating habits and attempting to make choices—most of the time, and insofar as our particular circumstances allow it—that will help our bodies to be healthy. In other words, we should seek virtue.
Ignoring the needs of our bodies doesn’t reflect care for God’s creation.
Some dieticians, medical professionals and health coaches take this approach, encouraging their clients to integrate small changes—taking a walk every day, or adding more fruits and vegetables to their meals—rather than embracing a radically new way of eating. They argue that it is possible to break the yo-yo dieting cycle, reject food restrictions and disordered thinking, and learn to become more in tune with your body while also seeking to lose weight, albeit very slowly. As in the pursuit of virtue, the key seems to be to focus on behaviors and habits, giving yourself grace and seeking progress, not perfection
On a societal level, fat liberationists are right that we need to push back against the diet industry and our culture’s widespread obsession with thinness. It is important to fight systemic bias against larger people and reject the conflation of health with moral superiority. The fact that “clean eating,” “self-care” and “wellness” are much more readily accessible to those with financial privilege—and that multilevel marketing schemes often prey on vulnerable women—only makes this more true. On the other hand, ignoring the needs of our bodies doesn’t reflect care for God’s creation either. We need to do our best to build habits that are conducive to our physical, mental and spiritual health, while also aligning with our own unique set of circumstances and vocations.
For me, that meant letting go of the unrealistic desire to weigh as much as I did a decade ago, when I was child-free, rarely exercised and therefore had much less muscle mass. I decided to give myself some grace as I juggled two children, a job, and major life changes like buying our family’s first house and making a home in a new city. Perhaps thanks to all the extra takeout, I ended up gaining some weight during this time. On the other hand, I prioritized getting regular exercise and good sleep even during a busy and stressful season, because those things gave me energy and improved my mood. My BMI might not show it, but I still think those were the right choices for me at the time.
Now I’m pregnant with baby number three. As the number on the scale continues to go up, I’m focusing on nourishing my body, drawing on the insights of intuitive eating to banish the inner “diet police” and paying attention to what foods make me feel satisfied and energized. After this baby comes, I may make a conscious effort to shift my eating in ways that will lead to weight loss, but I may not. Either way, I’m going to do my best to pay attention to what God is calling me to do in each season, keeping in mind that in order to pursue holistic health—body and soul—we need to seek the kind of virtue that lets us love and be loved by God.