- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Diane Cornell of Falls Church had tried it all - shots, pills and “every diet that came down the pike.”

“I think I have lost and gained 500 pounds over the years,” says Ms. Cornell, 60.

In January 2007, she signed up to take part in a weight-loss program, Losing to Live, at Capital Baptist Church in Annandale. She has lost 46 pounds and would like to drop 50 more. This time, Ms. Cornell has faith she will get there.

“When you get your mind off yourself, God leads you,” she says.

Ms. Cornell is one of millions taking part in faith-based diet programs. Christian weight-loss programs are not new, but they are more popular than ever. A number of books, including “What Would Jesus Eat?” “The Maker’s Diet” and “Body by God,” have been recent big sellers. First Place, a church-based support program, has 12,000 groups, with chapters in every state and more than 15 countries. A similar program, Weigh Down, has had more than 1 million participants since it began in 1986.

There also are countless homegrown programs, such as the one at Capital Baptist. The participants in Losing to Live attend weekly weigh-ins and motivational meetings. The program is based on “Bod4God: Four Keys to a Better Body,” authored by Capital Baptist senior pastor Steve Reynolds. Through prayer, small-group support and a few fundamental principles, participants are finding success. Since the program began in January 2007, participants have lost a combined 2 tons - more than 4,000 pounds, Mr. Reynolds says.

The basics of the program are simple: dedication (honoring God with your body), inspiration (motivating yourself for change), eating and exercise, and team (building a circle of support).

“Making these changes has helped us understand our relationship to God,” says participant Karen Cunningham, who has lost 70 pounds since she started the program in early 2007. Ms. Cunningham says she, too, tried a number diets through the years. This time, Ms. Cunningham, 41, is taking part with her daughter, Laura Belle, 16.

“It has helped us understand how bad some things are for your body,” Ms. Cunningham says. “You have to be accountable to God for what you put in your body. When we go grocery shopping, it is like God is in the shopping cart. Praying and the support of the group keep me away from the refrigerator.”

Much of the inspiration at Losing to Live comes from inside the building. Mr. Reynolds, 50, was a 340-pound diabetic in 2006. He says he has battled a weight problem practically all his life. His weight was in check when he was a teenage athlete and college football player. However, like many of his congregants, he found work, family and approaching middle age got in the way of maintaining a healthy lifestyle, and the pounds crept on in a big way.

“I was a heart attack waiting to happen,” Mr. Reynolds says. “I would say, ‘I am going to lose weight,’ but I never did. I wanted to live a long life, to be there for my wife, kids and church.”

That’s when Mr. Reynolds looked to the Bible and what it has to say about the body. He has since lost more than 100 pounds, is off the diabetes medication and is a motivational force as he organizes congregants to run in this weekend’s Losing to Live 5K Run and Walk.

“The secret still is to eat less and exercise more,” he says, “but faith is important. For me, it is about bringing belief and behavior together.”

Mr. Reynolds has a large potential audience. A 1998 study of 3,500 adults by Purdue University sociologist Kenneth Ferraro found that religious Americans are more likely to be overweight than nonreligious people. The study found that Baptists were the most overweight group (27 percent reported a weight problem). Compare that to 17 percent of Catholics, 18 percent of Methodists and 20 percent of Pentecostal and Assembly of God parishioners. Meanwhile, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and other non-Christian groups had rates as low as 1 percent.

Why so many Christians have a weight problem is most likely a complex mix of genetics, habits and regional foods. However, Mr. Reynolds admits that the way church social functions and food go together probably has not helped. His mission for a healthy lifestyle has seeped into the potlucks and Sunday-morning snacks. Doughnuts are out, Clif energy bars are in, he says.

James O. Hill, an obesity expert and director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, says faith-based weight-management programs have not been studied formally. However, since motivation is a key to weight-loss success, he would be intrigued to see the results of such a study.

“A big reason for failure in weight management is the lack of sustained motivation to maintain the necessary behavior changes,” he says. “Motivation is high when you are losing weight and everyone is telling you how great you look. However, when you are months and years out [and maintaining weight] this goes away.

“It is possible that faith could provide the motivation for sustaining the behaviors, he says. “People have to realize that losing weight is the easy part - keeping it off is hard. This will require permanent changes in diet and physical activity. There is nothing magic about weight loss - it is hard work, and it continues for as long as you want to keep the weight off.”

Eric Larsen of Annandale says his habits have changed for good. He is intent on not being part of the statistical group that gains back the weight. Mr. Larsen, 43, has lost about 100 pounds since January 2007. A member of Capital Baptist, he says he was inspired by Mr. Reynolds’ weight loss. He has been participating in Losing to Live since it began.

“I was miserable,” Mr. Larsen says of when he weighed 265 pounds. “When I had gotten fatter, I was in denial. I was an extremely obese person. I didn’t care. Now I care. I have prayed for a desire for fruits and vegetables. Before that, all I ate was meat and junk.

“I now know it is important to take care of the body God has given you,” he says. “I most likely will stay involved with the program. My life has been 100 percent changed.”

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