Nashville, TN (written by Heidi Hall/The Tennessean) -- Jesus ate local.
He walked everywhere.
He loved grilled fish dinners with friends.
And even if drive-thrus existed in the first century, he wouldn't have gulped down a value meal on his way to the office.
That's the message obesity fighters want pastors to convey to their flocks, captive audiences with a built-in support system -- one another. And while the deadly sin of gluttony slipped out of church lingo decades ago, a gentler approach that emphasizes eating as a spiritual issue can work, they say.
It's vital that obesity be addressed from the pulpit, said Scott Morris, a medical doctor and minister who founded Church Health Center in Memphis. But church practices have to change, too, and it works better to demonstrate what Jesus would do than to pound people for being overweight.
"The least healthy meal you can eat every week is at your church," Morris said. "The church has blessed the sin of gluttony. They have the hope of being able to draw people into the church in a way that is not necessarily great for the community.
"We have to change that."
That can be challenging when many pastors struggle with diet themselves -- multiple surveys show they're more likely to be overweight than the general population -- and a third of the congregation is likely to be obese.
Stephen H. Webb, a religion and philosophy professor at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Ind., wrote the essay "Whatever Happened to the Sin of Gluttony?" He contends it got lost on its way from the ancient world to the 21st century.
In times of scarcity, gluttony was a sin because one person eating too much food would mean another didn't get enough, Webb said. That argument doesn't hold in a world where the economy runs on food conglomerates, grocery super-centers and dining out for fun.
Gluttony took another hit when Christians decided to ditch religious dietary restrictions, said Webb, who also wrote "Good Eating," a history of food and religion.
He sees the idea of overeating as a sin re-emerging in a different context.
"We are recognizing as a society that there's a cost," Webb said. "It's contributing to soaring medical costs and other social problems."
A spiritual issue
Members of Cleveland Street Missionary Baptist Church in Nashville haven't heard pastor Donald Snead come down on gluttony from the pulpit, even though he considers the practice immoral.
"Our spirituality is very much attached to who we are physically, emotionally and mentally," he said. "You can't neglect any part of that if you're going to complete your spiritual journey."
Instead, the church's first lady, Wanda Snead, handles the discussion outside the formal sermon with events such as Diabetes Sunday, where she handed out information packets and encouraged members of the flock to take care of themselves.
Donald Snead's body mass index -- a measurement of well-being that uses height and weight -- is within the healthy range. Wanda Snead's isn't, a fact she readily admits. It springs from her upbringing in a rural Georgia family of over-eaters, she said, and being a regular churchgoer didn't help.
"The African-American church is very social and involved with food," she said. "You have to gently suggest, 'Instead of fried chicken, how about baked chicken?'"
The Daniel diet
One influential religious leader has been more direct about food and diet. Rick Warren, who leads the 30,000-member Saddleback Church in Southern California, recently lost 60 pounds and has promoted a diet called the Daniel Plan, named for the Old Testament prophet's commitment to light fare.
"I stood up before 20,000 people and told them I had gained 3 pounds a year, but I've been your pastor for 30 years, so I needed to lose about 90 pounds," he told USA TODAY earlier this year.
A study guide distributed to members contains a number of biblical passages related to physical health and declares in capital letters: "MY BODY IS GOD'S PROPERTY!"
Some religious groups offer exercise classes and host cooking demonstrations. At Congregation Sherith Israel in Nashville, members take turns working in a garden that board member Miriam Leibowitz helped start. Congregation dinners always include fresh fruit and vegetables.
"Judaism, Islam, Christianity and many other religions talk about moderation as part of whole health," Leibowitz said. "Keeping a healthy body is just as important as keeping a healthy spirit in order to have spiritual health. There are times to celebrate, but we also need to be mindful of how we treat ourselves."
Support from her church and her local Y, a Christian nonprofit, made all the difference for Springfield, Tenn., mom Tracy Holt, who lost her husband to cancer three years ago. It was a wake-up call -- her three children had one parent left, and she weighed 260 pounds.
She lost 80 pounds on her own, but with no support, the weight came back. In January, she asked for help from the Y's Hope for Health program, which supplies a discounted membership plus diet and exercise counseling, and from Red River Assembly of God, where she is secretary.
At church and the Y, she learned not to feel guilty for spending time and money taking care of herself. Holt has lost 12 pounds so far, but she also gained confidence and a positive attitude. For her, the spiritual and physical can't be separated.
"Christ died for us," she said. "We're worth his love. We're worth the time it takes to give our children healthier parents."