A recent article on everydayhealth.com entitled “6 Ways Food Affects Your Mood” offers the surprising (to me, anyway) finding that there is no scientific evidence for a link between sugar intake and hyperactivity. There is, however, a connection between the foods we eat and our feelings, the article suggests. Sherry L. Pagoto, PhD, associate professor of preventive and behavioral medicine at University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, is quoted as saying, “The link between emotions and eating is no myth.” As fascinating as the medical findings are on one’s physical health and how it relates to one’s diet, that is not really what I want to talk about here. You can find the article are explore it yourself if that’s of interest to you. Instead, I would like to examine the parallels between what the article reports about our physical health and diet to what the Bible teaches about our spiritual health and diet.
The first of the six ways the article examines is a connection between an unhealthy diet and depression. “Long-term exposure to an unhealthy diet is a risk factor for depression,” the article reports. The same is true of the “food” we eat mentally and spiritually. If we consume a diet high in worldly influences we will no doubt become depressed. If all one does is watch the news (or read the news), read fiction and watch sitcoms and Hollywood fare there will be a significant absence of spiritual meat in his or her diet. “What constituted an unhealthy diet, for purposes of the study, was one that was high in sugar and processed foods,” the article reports. The media influences offered up by the world definitely fall into the category of an unhealthy diet when one’s diet is entirely, of largely, made up of such influences.
The second link examined by the article is one between sugar and food addiction. “Foods that people were addicted to were high in fat and high in sugar,” the article states. Just like most of us tend to crave potato chips, cookies or ice cream far more often than carrot sticks and fresh fruit, our natural inclination will be toward the sugary/fatty “foods” of the world. Sin is attractive. If it were not, we would not be tempted by it. Let’s be honest–many sins are pleasurable during their commission. Far more often than not we sin because we want to–it feels good, it satisfies. Hebrews 11 tells how Moses chose to be mistreated with the Israelites rather than enjoy the temporary pleasures of sin. The Bible does not deny that sin is pleasurable–and Satan is a master at presenting sin in the most attractive and appealing means possible. What the Bible does teach, though, is that the pleasures of sin are temporary, and they come with very real consequences attached. I once heard someone glibly describe the realities of giving in to the temptation to eat unhealthy snack foods this way: a moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips. “Lifetime” may be a bit extreme, but the point was that the pleasures of that snack food would be very short-lived, while the effects of it would be seen and felt for a long time afterward. The exact same is true with the food we feed our minds. Just like I have to discipline myself not to eat all the yummy snack foods and ignore all the less-than-delicious foods that are good for me, I must discipline myself to restrict my intake of worldly influences and be sure that I am pursuing a healthy spiritual and mental diet.
The third link in the article is the sugar-stress connection. The American Psychological Association states that our bodies seek out the quick energy burst available that comes with a sugar intake when we are stressed. Dr. Pagoto says, “That may be why many people eat sweets when they are under stress. We teach people to use healthy behaviors to reduce stress instead of food. One of the best ways to reduce stress is with exercise. You can start to think of exercise as not just a chore but a way to feel better.” I do not know about you, but I am under considerable stress that is when I am most likely to yield to my flesh–to behave in a way that is not God-honoring or to seek out the “high sugar content” of sinful pleasure. Just as physical exercise is important, so is spiritual exercise. Just as physical exercise takes intentionality and discipline, so does spiritual exercise. Just as Dr. Pagoto says we should think of physical exercise as way to feel better rather than as a chore, so should we consider spiritual exercise. Reading the Bible, spending time in prayer and other spiritual disciplines should not be chores, they should be a regular part of our lives because they are good for us, they will help us to feel better and to stay on track.
The remaining three links are just as relevant spiritually as physically, and I could elaborate on all of them but I think the point has been sufficiently made–so let me just highlight one of the other three. The fifth link examined in the article is the connection between diet quality and the mental health of adolescents. While there is a connection at all ages, it is particularly important during adolescence because of the changes going on in the body and the mental development that is taking place during these years. The same is just as true–perhaps even more so–when it comes to spiritual diet. Precisely because teenagers are beginning to develop their own beliefs, convictions, habits and preferences, spreading their wings a bit and moving away from the default adherence to parental positions, the influences that teenagers have are incredibly important. The world is well aware of this too, and many of the most inappropriate and unhealthy influences the world has to offer are specifically targeted at teens. Parental instruction, church and youth group involvement in Bible-teaching churches and where the teen will attend school are all crucial influences during this time. The music they listen to, the shows and movies they watch, the web sites they visit, the amount of access they have to the Internet, the friends they spend time with…these are all influences that parents need to be mindful of and monitor. Parents need to let teens spread their wings, but they need to provide guidance, direction, structure and yes, discipline, when necessary.
The bottom line is, we are what we eat…both physically and spiritually.