Watching What We Eat

In 1995, I had surgery to have my wisdom teeth removed. Having fasted for 12 hours, I went into surgery on an empty stomach. When I got out, I did what most people do after having their wisdom teeth pulled—I ate ice cream. When I got home, though, I went into the kitchen to get water and collapsed on the floor. My mom was concerned, but she thought that I was probably just dehydrated. So I rested.

Six years later, after I ate a chocolate bar on an empty stomach and fainted again, my mom suggested that I get tested for hypoglycemia. (My grandpa had been diagnosed with it a few years earlier.) I did, and the test came back positive.

Hypoglycemia means “low blood sugar.” The main problems that arise with it result from “an inadequate supply of glucose to the brain, resulting in impairment of function (neuroglycemia).” Effects can range from mild discomfort to seizures to unconsciousness to, in very rare cases, permanent brain damage or death. In order to regulate blood sugar levels, people with hypoglycemia are given strict diets—eat every three to four hours and refrain from consuming sugar, especially on an empty stomach.

I wish, of course, that my body processed sugar more efficiently. It’s hard to be attached to this, as William Butler Years puts it, “tattered coat upon a stick.” Living in this weak body means that I’m unable to do traditional fasts or enjoy rich desserts. In other words, it affects my ability to fast and feast.

Perhaps that’s why I chose to write this series. Although the limitations of my body are relatively mild, I groan inwardly (and outwardly) as I eagerly await my adoption and “the redemption of my body” (Rom. 8:23). When that happens, I’ll be the first in line at the dessert table.

What Does ‘Healthy’ Mean?

Under the direction of Mrs. Obama, the White House executive pastry chef, Bill Yosses, “was directed to make more healthful desserts, and in smaller portions, that were to be served only sparingly to the first family.” He frequently replaces butter with fruit purée and sugar with honey or agave. He also often adds whole grains to desserts and picks his fruits, vegetables, and herbs directly from the White House garden.

bill yossesA few weeks ago, however, Yosses announced his “bittersweet decision” to leave Washington and head to New York, explaining, “I don’t want to demonize cream, butter, sugar, and eggs.” He also said, “Not everything is about sugar, but everything is about good taste. And there’s such a thing as healthy good taste.” In other words, he thinks it’s possible to focus on healthy ingredients without stigmatizing traditional ones.

But what does “healthy” mean? For people like me, of course, it means refraining from sugar. Does it also mean, though, low in calories or packed with whole grains? It’s hard to know. Science writer Gary Taubes laments:

Because the nutrition research community has failed to establish reliable, unambiguous knowledge about the environmental triggers of obesity and diabetes, it has opened the door to a diversity of opinions on the subject, of hypotheses about cause, cure, and prevention, many of which cannot be refuted by the existing evidence. Everyone has a theory. The evidence doesn’t exist to say unequivocally who’s wrong.

Healthy Eating and the Gospel

Taubes thinks the culprit is sugars and refined grains. But no matter what ingredients we personally think are healthy or not, we nonetheless have to make decisions about what we eat. And pastry chefs have to make decisions about what ingredients to use. How then do we go about making these decisions?

First, it’s important to remember that our salvation does not rest upon what we eat. As Jesus said, “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth” (Matt. 15:11). Similarly, Paul wrote, “Food will not commend us to God” (1 Cor. 8:8).

Second, God cares about how we treat our physical bodies. We are stewards, not owners, of them. As Paul wrote, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Cor. 6:19-20).

Third, God has given us food as a gift (Gen. 1:29) and, therefore, how we receive it from him matters. Author and CSA-user Josh Bishop writes, “I’m learning to intentionally choose food that makes me more aware of, and thankful for, the grace of God, and to eat that food with an abiding awareness of God and his goodness.”

Finally, for pastry chefs, undergirding all of these considerations is the command to love others (Matt. 22:39). This is perhaps the main reason why bakers seeking to integrate their faith and work should care about whether their ingredients are healthy. Rather than contribute to the obesity or diabetes of their neighbors, they can instead help them to lead healthy and full lives.

What then are some specific decisions that pastry chefs must consider? And how do they go about making them?

Genetically Modified Foods

Genetically modified foods (“GM foods”) are made from organisms that have been altered by genetic engineering with certain changes into their DNA. Some pastry recipes call for ingredients that may have been genetically modified, e.g., papayas, milk, corn.

Customer HealthMy friend Annie is a pastry chef in New York, and she told me that she avoids using GM foods altogether. In her bread classes, she teaches, “If you can’t pronounce it, then don’t eat it.” And she’s in good company. Oprah, Dr. Oz, Bill Maher, and Whole Foods have criticized the GM movement.

Yet their decisions do not settle the matter. After meeting with Annie, I talked with another friend—a scientist named Kristen, who told me that that there is no evidence that GM foods are unhealthy. “The scientific research conducted so far,” one group reports, “has not detected any significant hazards directly connected with the use of genetically engineered crops.”

So can we use GM foods? On the one hand, there’s nothing inherently wrong with doing so. As we will see tomorrow, human ingenuity applied to the natural world can express God’s creativity and fulfill the cultural mandate (Gen. 1:28). On the other hand, however, intrinsic to science and discovery is the scientific method with its process of hypothesis and testing. Scientific research, therefore, may one day offer evidence that there are, in fact, adverse health risks associated with GM foods. Pastry chefs driven by their love for their neighbors, therefore, would benefit from paying attention to current research and, when possible, making intentional decisions about whether to use GM foods.

Processed Food

We also have to decide whether to use processed foods, which are commercially prepared and designed for easy consumption. Processed foods used in baking can include artificial sweeteners, synthetic trans fats, high-fructose corn syrup, and preservatives. Not all of these foods, however, should be considered equally.

Trans fats, for example, are known to be harmful because they raise bad cholesterol (LDL) and lower good cholesterol (HDL), which can increase risk of cardiovascular disease. In recent years, companies like Crisco have made efforts to eliminate trans fats from their baking ingredients. For healthier alternatives, pastry chefs can turn to monounsaturated fats or polyunsaturated fats (olive oil, safflower oil, peanut oil) or omega-3 fatty acids (flaxseed, soybean, nuts, other seeds).

Artificial sweeteners can be considered like GM foods—although some people condemn them, the scientific community cites no evidence of their danger. Therefore, paying attention to current research is important.

Despite high-profile campaigns arguing otherwise, high-fructose corn syrup is thought to be no worse than sugar in general. “The smart play,” Mayo Clinic says, “is to cut back on added sugar, regardless of the type.”

Portion Sizes

In February, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) proposed major changes to nutrition labels on food packages for the first time in two decades. Since current labels are based on eating habits from the 1970s and ’80s, one of the proposed changes adjusts portion sizes to reflect modern eating. “It’s an amazing transformation,” the FDA Commissioner says. “Things like the size of a muffin have changed so dramatically.”

Perhaps the main impetus for improving portion sizes on food labels is the obesity problem in this country. According to the latest numbers from the National Center for Health Statistics, 34.9 percent of Americans are obese, which is about 35 pounds heavier than a healthy weight. Obesity, of course, has several adverse effects—type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, liver problems, degenerative joint disease, and some types of cancer.

Pastry chefs seeking to integrate their faith and work can see their work as a means to discourage gluttony and encourage moderation. Concerning gluttony, Asaph recalled the Israelites, who “tested God in their heart by demanding the food they craved” (Ps.78:8). Likewise, Paul warned that, for the enemies of the cross, “their god is their belly” (Phil. 3:19). As to moderation, Solomon advised, “If you have found honey, eat only enough for you, lest you have your fill of it and vomit it” (Prov. 25:16).

My friend Kelly, an entrepreneurial pastry chef in Grand Rapids, intentionally makes portion sizes that don’t encourage overeating. “I almost always make cupcakes, for example, in the small to medium range because all foods, including desserts, should be eaten in moderation.”

There’s a more fundamental concern, however, with overindulging on food. Jonathan Edwards preached,

When man was first created, he was made with two different kinds of appetites: with natural and animal appetites, and with holy and spiritual appetites. The former were given only to be as servants to the latter, and so were to be in subjugation to them. . . . But if by any means they exceeded these bounds, they necessarily suppressed those spiritual appetites.

In other words, when we eat, we should be aware that our physical appetite for food must be subject to our spiritual appetite for Christ. When we overeat or indulge on large portions, then we risk deadening our spiritual cravings. As we observed on Monday, although the Lord calls us to times of feasting, he also calls us to times of fasting and, even more regularly, to times of ordinary, daily eating. In these ways, he wants us to use our eating habits as means to long for him.

Give Bread, Not Stone

When encouraging his followers to ask, seek, and knock, Jesus said:

Which one of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! (Matt. 7:9-11)

Pastry chefs, therefore, have the opportunity to bear God’s image by making their pastries good and delicious, not unhealthy and dangerous.

When it comes to making healthy choices, though, it’s not fundamentally about calories or carbohydrates. In some ways, those are just artificial measurements of what’s in pastries and desserts. Instead, we ought to look more deeply at the ingredients. What are we using? What does the current research say about our ingredients? Can I make a traditional dessert healthier by adding certain things like whole and ancient grains or heritage wheat? In all of these decisions, pastry chefs have opportunities to love their neighbors by feeding them what is good and healthy, pointing them to the Giver of all foods and, perhaps, even increasing their spiritual appetite for him.

* * * * *

Don’t forget: We’re making a TGC dessert cookbook and would love your desserts to be included! So share with us your favorite recipes by Saturday, April 6, at 12 p.m. EDT. Happy baking!

  • Curt Day

    Just wanted to comment on the line below:

    I talked with another friend—a scientist named Kristen, who told me that that there is no evidence that GM foods are unhealthy. “The scientific research conducted so far,” one group reports, “has not detected any significant hazards directly connected with the use of genetically engineered crops.”

    There is a problem in the statement. First, we a significant effort by industry to block labeling of GMO information on our foods. In addition, we see little federal regulation of the production of such foods. Finally, some GMOs themselves are there to allow for increased pesticide use on crops. We should note that chemical runoff from farmlands into rivers and into the seas is one of the major reasons why we now have over 400 dead zones in our seas and oceans.

    But we should also note the articles below that, though not conclusive, do provide evidence regarding the risks of GMO laden foods

    THe above list is not exhaustive and that there is research showing no ill effects of foods with GMOs too. But why the efforts to block transparency regarding foods containing GMOs? And shouldn’t we be concerned about changing foods so that more pesticides can be used on them?

    • rstarke

      The bigger issue for me as a Christian is the ethics of taking genetic material of animals and integrating it with plants. This is also a concern for orthodox Jews and Muslims as well. When all life is equal, there’s not a barrier to eventual cross-breeding between animals and plants, and plant and animals with humans, all in the name of strengthening an individual species.

      • Curt Day

        for me, the problem I see is that lack of caution being exercised in changing what has been given to us through nature

        Plus, I think the profit margin is the driving force here rather than the belief that all life is equal.

    • Bethany Jenkins

      Curt, thank you so much! I’m so thankful for your voice and contribution! As I said at the beginning of this series, I’m not offering the final word on these topics nor able to address them exhaustively. So I’m loving the contributions that people are adding, esp you!

      • Curt Day

        I know you are not. Rather, you were giving both sides voices in the debate. But the statement by the one person had to be challenged.

  • Andrew

    Although I agree with you that we should eat healthy, I’m quite confused on the article. Under the sub-title ” healthy eating and the Gospel”, no where do I see and understanding of the Gospel… you know… the good news that God has come in flesh and died, was buried, and rose again according to the scriptures?

    Also, I’d like to point out a misuse of the 1 Cor. 6 passage that you do. Here is what you say:

    “Second, God cares about how we treat our physical bodies. We are
    stewards, not owners, of them. As Paul wrote, “Do you not know that your
    body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God?
    You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God
    in your body”

    This passage in no way is speaking about eating healthy or drinking or piercing or tattooing, etc. This passage deals with one thing specifically, that of sexual immorality. To take it as you have has gone the way of the “fundamentalist” error in interpretation. Context is key in any regard. I do believe scripture does tell us that we ought to not over do things or that there is in fact wisdom in not doing certain things to our bodies, but in no way is this referring to eating. The way you have interpreted this passage goes back to the “fundamentalist” movement that, in part, was started in America by none other then Charles Finney. This approach to the passage is legalistic and might be binding on ones conscience. If I choose to eat something, that is unhealthy (like a doughnut) don’t sit there by interpreting a passage a certain way to judge ones choice done in liberty.

    • rstarke

      I’ve heard that argument before from Doug Wilson in particular. But the overall point of that passage is to refute the popular opinion of the Corinthians that our appetites (whether for sex or food) are the determiner of our behavior. Paul argues that our appetites should in fact be subordinate to the One who made them. As Paul argues in Romans, we are not free to exploit or be a stumbling block to others, but to love and serve them.

    • Bethany Jenkins

      Andrew, I just replied to the contextualization concern in my reply to Jon. As for the fundamental accusation, I never made – nor presumed to make – a bright line rule. I’m offering the sides of the argument and prompting the conversation.

  • Jon Hall

    We can disagree on what we deem healthy or unhealthy, but you must stop reading your point of view into the scriptures you quote. All of your articles have done this with at least one scripture reference. This is far more serious than the food that we eat and I’m surprised that the TGC editors would let this kind of thing be published!

    As Andrew stated, 1 Cor. 6 is about sexual immortality. Period. If you’re trying to read into it something about unhealthy eating than you’re eisgeting the text. That is wrong and dangerous! The same can be said about your reference of Matt. 7:9-11. Are you really trying to say that a stone and serpent represent unhealthy food?

    My suggestion? Take these verses out of your article, as you have applied them improperly. You should be more responsible about how you treat and apply God’s Word.

    • Bethany Jenkins

      So is your argument that God has ownership of our body only in the sexual act? Does the reasoning of his sovereignty) not extend to how we treat our physical bodies – whether in having sex or eating?

    • nathankc

      The usage of 1 Cor 6 is entirely appropriate. Paul is making a propositional argument essentially saying “you might say that food is made for the body…” etc…and yes he does go on to largely speak of sexual immorality but that does not negate the truth in the idea he is conveying – that we should glorify God in our bodies. There are no qualifiers on that statement. And you are misunderstanding her use of Matthew 7. She references God’s attitude when we ask for something and He will return good, not bad. We should have the same attitude. If somebody asks us for something we should not just give them what they ask for but give them what is good for them too.

      • Bethany Jenkins

        Agree, Nathan. Thank you for your careful reading and, of course, contribution to the discussion. (You, too, Jon. Thanks for joining in the conversation!)

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  • Jeremiah Johnson

    Gluttony is sin, that is clear. Stewardship is of what God has given us is too.
    Keep provoking us to thought Bethany!

  • Christopher Boyer

    Hi Bethany. I’m curious to why you never mentioned the role of GMOs in feeding the world (i.e., the Green Revolution). Many peer reviewed journal articles have shown the benefits GMO crops in developing countries with food insecurity. I’m an agricultural economist by training and not a theologian, but it seems that GMOs could be a common grace. Perhaps something to be thankful for. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on this subject. Thanks.

    • Bethany Jenkins

      Christopher, Great question! (And fascinating topic!) I didn’t address the topic because the question I was trying to figure out was: “Are GMOs unhealthy or healthy?” and then present both sides. Having said that, I love your insight about common grace and GMOs. If you have time, perhaps you could share a few resources for us? Perhaps Curt can weigh in, too? Thanks, Christopher!

      • Christopher Boyer

        Bethany, I’m happy to share some resources. I’m not sure the best way to go about do that. This is my first time to ever comment on a blog. I’ll try to connect with you via linkedin and email you some stuff this week. I can write a short discussion on the topic and let you pick it a part if you want. Also, I apologize if my previous comment came off as critical. That was not my intention. I have enjoyed reading your postings on food and very happy to see this topic being discussed on TGC. Thank – Chris

        • Bethany Jenkins

          I didn’t take it as critical at all! Happy to have your voice in the conversation!

  • Scott

    Hi Bethany, just wanted to say thank you for writing these very thoughtful articles! Certainly must have been intimidating to post a little outside “the norm” on this platform, but these are issues that really help us think through the gospel “for all of life”. Keep up the great work!

    • Bethany Jenkins

      Scott, thanks for the encouragement and your other very thoughtful comments and contributions! These are important discussions and I hope that we as the church can begin to take a bigger lead than we have in the past. After all, our stewardship calling is powerful. Very thankful for you!

  • Allie

    “For healthier alternatives, pastry chefs can turn to monounsaturated fats or polyunsaturated fats (olive oil, safflower oil, peanut oil) or omega-3 fatty acids (flaxseed, soybean, nuts, other seeds).”

    See, the thing is, in my research most of these fats listed in the quote are NOT healthy. I can find studies against the majority of them.
    I guess it matters on whose “facts” you decide to believe. This is a topic that will cause wars on real food blogs. ;)

    Who is the nutritional genius of the day who can tell us which fat or diet is truly healthy? Green Smoothie Girl or Kaleo Paleo? Gluten/grain free or whole grains? Raw or cooked? Juicing or whole foods? Nourishing Traditions or Vegan Veggielover? Raw milk or pastuerized? Almond milk or Soy milk? Sprouted/soaked/soured grains or just cooked? Saturated fats or fake industrial vegetable fats? Egg whites only or the whole egg? Protein powder and supplements or food only? fasting or carb loading?
    Low carb, low fat, organic or moderate carb, moderate fat and conventional? Fermented veggies only or steamed?
    Who is the authority today who can help us know how God wants us to eat if this is a biblical issue? Do we trust the government to tell us how to eat? Where do they get their information? Do we trust those who worship their bodies or the planet? Do we trust the information coming from New Agers? Do we trust the latest trends and “studies” that are only to be debunked in 15 years or less? Do we trust the FDA? The First Lady?
    I would agree there is wisdom in choosing healthy eating, BUT who decides what is healthy with all the varying opinions and/or flawed studies?

    I have learned over the years that “food will not commend us to God,” food is amoral. Food is a personal choice and sometimes becomes a religion for many people.
    Sure, if there are allergies or sensitivities then one must spend a lot of time researching, sourcing and cooking/preparing food for themselves and their families.
    I also agree that the Standard American Diet is horrific, but mostly because of the govt. in big AG.

    We both agree eating healthy is important, but we do not agree on which diet is THE chosen healthy way of eating.
    So, how do we factor being a “good steward of our bodies” with our differing thoughts about what is healthy? I just don’t see where the Bible is clear on this, unless you want to look at the OT diet restrictions.

    I really appreciate your heart on this topic and sharing your research, I’m just not sure the connection to the gospel.

    • Bethany Jenkins

      I’m sorry, but you seem to have missed entire quotes and sections of this article. See Taubes quote re: “healthy” eating. See “food does not commend us to God”. Also, see the first post in the series, which clarifies what this series is and is not about – no bright lines are suggested here, but an attempt to start the conversation. It is our laziness in asking the questions in the first place, not where we draw the lines, that is the problem.

      • allie

        Thanks Bethany. I certainly can miss some things.
        I did read the articles and didn’t think I missed anything, but my mind does not always retain. ;/

        Carbs/sugar/refined grains are the trending demonized food of choice these days. I did read the Taubes quote and not too long ago, saturated fats, eggs, etc. were the demonized food, among many others. I tend to wonder what we will learn about grains (whole or refined) given ten more years or so, will the info reverse like the sat fats? I don’t know, I just know this is the on and off again pattern of touting what is healthy eating.

        So, I guess what I was trying to get across, is that this is *not* a new conversation. I’ve been in it for years (20+) and have asked many questions. (Clearly, many of the things in the grocery stores and fast food restaurants are not helpful to feed our bodies, no doubt. Also, some foods have been changed or hybridized or GMO and it can cause problems.)
        I know I have finally come around to the common sense of eating what is real food. Butter and eggs have been eaten for thousands of years, so I eat it.
        When I listened to the latest research of the “low-fat” dogma of the 70’s-90’s I stopped eating saturated fats. I stopped eating the yolks of eggs, avocados or nuts of any kind, but especially macadamias (they were the most “evil” nut at the time). I stopped eating whole fat dairy. Then when dairy was demonized, I stopped eating all dairy. I could go on and on …this conversation has been going on for a very long time.

        I’m not understanding the, “no bright lines are suggested” and the quote about the “For healthier alternatives” which seems to draw a clear bright line that the fats suggested in your article are the “healthier” options. It seems you are suggesting “healthier” fats.

        Thanks for your patience in helping me understand.

        • RStarke

          Hi Allie,
          Your thoughtful questions embody a lot of frustration people in general, and Christians in particular, have on this topic. Nutritional science is one of the most “fluid” of the sciences because the number of factors which influence its study are so great. Gender, ethnicity, geography, climate, genetics, exercise, and the latest discovery – microbes – *all* influence the positive or negative impact of nutrients. Add to that the fallenness of our bodies, and the fallenness of the scientists who study them, and it’s a wonder we know for certain as little as we do!

          You and Bethany are correct in recalling that food does not commend us to God. *But*, when Jesus calls his people His “body”, and identifies Himself with bread and wine, then we ought not to at least consider whether we are relating to food in a way that accurately depicts that relationship, yes? Beyond that, Paul argues in Romans 14 that our eating habits can either be a means of love, or of stumbling, for others. So, we are free. But not free to serve ourselves primarily, but others.

          The specifics of *what* to eat are, yes, tricky to discern. But the unifying industry that influences which direction the pendulum swings is not science, but business. Science reveals a trend or direction, and industry tries to make a buck by exploiting that. Consequently, when fat was bad, industry responded by reducing fat in processed food and pumping up the sugar. Now we’re experiencing the consequences of that, and industry is responding by touting their lack of HFCS, but pumping up the salt and fat. In general, the diets that seem to work the best over the long term involve minimally processed (boxed, canned, frozen) whole foods, cooked simply. If God made it and called it good, it’s good to eat. If a scientist concocted it in a lab, not ideal.

  • Bethany Jenkins

    “Spiritual Appetites Need No Bounds” (I don’t think it’s available online – not even in the Yale collection. But the link in the article takes you to the book in which it is found – p. 223.)

  • Mary Jane E. Sobel

    So helpful to me, Bethany, and hopefully to my 3 daughters, all of whom, me included, need spiritual, Biblical, guidance vis-à-vis food. Much appreciated. Why do anything without His guidance, including eating?
    Thank you. Book?