The Saint Diet: some thoughts on food and sin
This post is part of a series about re-thinking my relationship to food, which I call “The Saint Diet” to remind myself that the ultimate goal is deeper union with God. You can read all the posts on the subject here (scroll down to see them all).
I mentioned back in November that through prayer and spiritual direction I was dragged kicking and screaming into the realization that there are ways you can structure your lifestyle to make it more conducive to holiness (e.g. getting enough sleep, eating healthy foods, not getting overcommitted, etc.). As I detailed more in that post, I found that over and over again I felt drawn to focus on what I am eating and how it’s impacting my spiritual life.
Ever since then I’ve paid close attention to how food affects me, and the results were shocking: I knew that there was some connection, but I was amazed to see just how much what I eat impacts my life — particularly my spiritual life.
Never has it been more clear than this week.
Yaya is in town for a week, and our house has been full of cookies and biscotti and caramel popcorn and all sorts of other tempting Christmas goodies. The combination of the usual little tensions of a week-long in-law visit with simple carbs has made me realize that what I eat is having a tremendous impact on my ability to live out the Christian beliefs I profess.
Here is an example of two different occasions this week when I was in frustrating situations, noting how I handled each one and what I’d eaten in the hours beforehand:
THURSDAY MORNING, 11:30am
Breakfast: White bagel, sugar cookie, handful of caramel-drenched popcorn
Anger Level (scale of 1-10): 8
Ability to Remain Calm and Charitable (scale of 1-10): 2
Internal Dialogue: [deleted due to explicit content]
FRIDAY MORNING, 11:30am
Breakfast: Steel-cut oats oatmeal, two apple slices
Anger Level: 1
Ability to Remain Calm and Charitable: 8
Internal Dialogue: “Sure, Yaya and I have different ways of doing things, and occasionally the way she phrases her constructive criticism makes me feel defensive, but how insignificant is that compared to all the ways she helps us? And, for that matter, she often has good points, if I’d only be willing to listen in humility. How blessed am I to have a mother-in-law who is willing to cook and clean and take great care of all the kids to give me a break, even if I find her methods a bit unorthodox at times?”
Thursday morning I was an angry, bitter troll of a person; Friday morning I felt calm and peaceful and was able to take it all in stride and count my blessings. And what I ate in the hours beforehand had a lot to do with it.
These two examples are consistent with what I have observed over and over again in the past month. I have realized that my tendency to sin — to lash out, to indulge in self-centered behavior, the think angry or uncharitable thoughts, to turn away from God — is tremendously impacted by my diet. Eating healthy won’t make me a saint, of course; but it will remove a lot of the mood fluctuations that leave me extremely susceptible to temptation to sin.
I think it’s not a coincidence that this realization comes to me while I’m pregnant.
Because of my tendency toward vanity, it’s always been hard for me to make any healthy eating plan as much about health as it should be; too often good intentions to improve my health eventually become more about size eight jeans than overall wellness. But, at 28 weeks pregnant, this time my motivation can’t be weight loss. I have to want to change my diet for the impact it will have on my health (and by extension the baby’s health) and my spiritual life, and nothing else.
So this is what’s on my mind as a new year approaches:
Though I’ve never been seriously overweight, all my life I’ve had an unhealthy attachment to unhealthy foods and have repeatedly failed to do anything about it on a permanent basis. I think that part of the reason for that has been my inability to extricate vanity from the process — though there’s nothing wrong with wanting to look your best, with me that too easily slips into indulging in the sin of vanity. And when your motivation is rooted in sin, it’s going to be impossible to make deep, lasting changes in your life for the better.
Now that the option of weight loss has been taken off the table, I’m left to approach my relationship to food with a completely different state of mind. I’m left to pray not about how I can lose that last 10 pounds, but about how I can find the foods that will give me energy and stamina to lose some bad spiritual habits. My motivating visual now is not the image of me in a beautiful dress, but the image of me in a beautiful state of mind.
My New Year’s Resolutions almost always involve some great desire to change my eating habits, and this year is no exception. But, for the first time, weight has nothing to do with it. I want to get serious about cutting out unhealthy foods and eating a diet based on fresh fruits and vegetables and lean meats and whole grains because, without vanity clouding my eyes, I can finally see what food is doing to me — and it’s worse than just not being able to wear that size “medium” sweater.
I haven’t quite figured out what my specific plan will be, but I’m ready to change. And I think I’m finally ready to change for the right reasons.