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Faithful explore diets for spiritual, health reasons

Every fall Elizabeth Wisniewski would savor the moment she sipped a pumpkin spice latte. With her new health goals, however, she avoids the aromatic delight and offers up the latte as a sacrifice.

The 32-year-old has strived to make her diet choices more of a lifestyle and chance to grow in faith.

“I think dieting so often is about my weight and what I look like, but I think it falls short and that’s why so many people struggle with dieting back and forth,” said Wisniewski, a parishioner at St. Mary Church in Littleton.

Instead, Wisniewski said she will sacrifice certain foods for the benefit of a person or prayer intention in addition to her health.

Several health-minded regimes like the Paleo diet, gluten-free eating and cleanse diets have spiked in popularity among Catholic circles. Local experts say such diets can assist in achieving health goals yet faithful should consider their intentions to avoid the snares of vanity and false promises.

Christian tradition teaches human bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit and thus should be treated with care. Diets, outside of major health concerns or intolerances, may be used to care for bodies, such as to lose weight, cleanse bodies of toxins, or prepare for a performance or task.

A desire to “make weight” on the wrestling team, prepare for surgery or become more attractive may be legitimate reasons, according to Christian Brugger, moral theologian at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver.

But diets can be spiritually dangerous.

A woman who wants to lose weight yet struggles with an eating disorder may not be making a good moral choice by adopting a diet.

“The ethical question at play here is whether or not the dieting is justified by the benefit it promises,” Brugger said. “A teenage girl who wants to diet to lose weight, but who is struggling with obsessive body-preoccupation or an eating disorder, might be doing something self-destructive under the guise of ‘healthy.’”

To ensure a psychologically and physically-sound decision to adopt a diet, Brugger suggests consulting a health care provider.

Anne Hovasse, an instructor on nutrition in the nursing school at Regis University in Denver, said students often ask about the latest diets. While some may be advantageous, many may be based on misinformation and myths, she said.

One way to avoid diet pitfalls is to not consider the diet itself but rather one’s lifestyle.

“There is certainly a lot of judgment around people’s body images and people can have obsessions,” she said. “The reality is it’s so much more important to be healthy. For people to be healthy, they need to look at their lifestyles.”

Generally, faithful should first consider a regular exercise routine and recommendations on meals from the FDA and Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics to form a healthy lifestyle, she said.

Popes and apostles have also addressed diets, or fasting from certain foods, as a means for spiritual benefit or moral detriment.

St. Paul said one of the great impediments to spiritual growth is “the flesh.”

“Fasting from pleasures, most especially the pleasure of eating, can be a great benefit in ‘training’ ourselves in appropriate forms of self-denial; we ‘learn’ to say no to ourselves in certain ways so we are more available to say yes to God,” he said.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI once spoke about how diets can “bridle sin,” but if approached incorrectly, can turn bodies into idols.

“In our own day, fasting seems to have lost something of its spiritual meaning, and has taken on, in a culture characterized by the search for material well-being, a therapeutic value for the care of one’s body,” he said in December 2008.

The root of motivation for any diet choices, the pope said, is a “therapy” to heal and “mortify our egoism and open our heart to love of God and neighbor.”

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