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Should Churches Speak Up About Unhealthy Food Choices?

Television commercials offer cultural insight, with their content and presentation methods serving as a tool for social analysis.

On a recent evening, my wife and I were watching a sit-com via a network’s streaming option, and I noticed that the same ads were repeated during most commercial breaks.

Two ads were for food products, containing close-up shots of the ingredients being prepared, carefully laid out on plates and consumed by smiling customers.

These commercials did not incite a desire for the products. They recalled a statement by C.S. Lewis that I read years ago.

Lewis compared, in a chapter of “Mere Christianity,” an erroneous human sexual instinct with a food instinct that had been grossly perverted.

“Suppose you came to a country where you could fill a theatre by simply bringing a covered plate on to the stage and then slowly lifting the cover so as to let everyone see, just before the lights went out, that it contained a mutton chop or a bit of bacon,” he wrote. “Would you not think that in that country something had gone wrong with the appetite for food?”

Consumers may not buy tickets to watch a food strip tease as Lewis describes, but food companies and restaurants spend millions of dollars each year on advertising their products to millions of viewers.

A large number of ads replicate the basic contours of Lewis’ analogy, as do numerous cooking shows. Is there a substantive difference in displaying food in a theater as Lewis depicted and doing so via television?

Lewis suggested that captivating an audience by displaying food is an indicator of an erroneous relationship. If true, the U.S. fits the bill and the preponderance of food commercials suggests the problem is extensive.

When analyzing TV ads with Lewis’ comments in mind, it isn’t difficult to see that they not only target our overgrown food appetite, but also have a strange, perversely sexualized quality.

Sexualizing food has become common practice for some companies, most notably Carl’s Jr., whose Super Bowl ads the past few years have contained scantily clad women consuming their products.

In addition, 13 of the 42 Super Bowl 2015 ads were for food or beverage products. Only one, produced by Weight Watchers (WW), advocated a healthy relationship with food.

Tellingly, the WW ad showed a litany of faux ads that replicated actual food ads seen on television, concluding with an invitation to reject these appeals, join their program, eat their products and lose weight.

While live TV viewing declined slightly in 2014, moving from 147 hours on average per month to 141, online streaming, which also contains ads for food, has increased.

The average U.S. citizen watches nearly five hours of live or online TV daily, inundating them with ads promoting unhealthy food choices.

A direct line from TV viewing and food related ads to diabetes, obesity and lack of physical exercise should not be drawn since numerous factors are involved.

Nevertheless, TV viewing’s sedentary nature, combined with the frequent encouragement to get up from our sofas and arm chairs not to exercise or eat well but to purchase the latest fried or sugar-laden food products is problematic.

I’m not anti-television. Admittedly, I watch more TV than I should. I’m also not a “health nut.” I try to eat healthy and exercise regularly, but I have much room to improve.

Yet, since the Bible speaks a great deal about human health and the food we eat, it should be a greater emphasis in our churches.

For example, Genesis 1:29-30 says that God set forth a vegetarian-based diet for Adam and Eve, with the provision of “every moving thing that lives” being acceptable for humans to consume not being given until Genesis 9:3.

Quoting Genesis will not help parents convince children to eat their vegetables, but it does emphasize the importance of healthy eating to Christians who live in a culture inundated with ads for deep-fried, fatty and sugar-laden foods.

Proverbs speaks often about food and balanced diet. For example, Proverbs 23 warns against gluttony and drunkenness, while Proverbs 24 urges eating honey only to have Proverbs 25 emphasize moderation in doing so.

In other words, too much of an acceptable food item is unhealthy – a needed reminder in a society where all-you-can-eat buffets, super-sized drinks and ever-increasing portions have become the norm.

There is also the familiar story in Daniel 1 about the results of two contrasting diets – the luxurious royal food versus a diet of vegetables – with the latter making Daniel and his friends “healthier and better nourished than any of the young men who ate the royal food.”

While the story is a critique of the indulgence and excess of royal culture, this narrative also emphasizes the positive benefits of healthy food choices and moderation found throughout the Hebrew Bible and Christian Scriptures.

I can’t recall hearing many sermons or Bible studies on food and diet, and I have never delivered one myself.

If my experience reflects the larger church, we are failing to provide a necessary counter-cultural witness in a society dominated by unhealthy lifestyle choices that reflect the “royal culture” of indulgence that Daniel 1 critiqued.

Fulfilling God’s “be fruitful and multiply” imperative requires a balanced diet and a healthy lifestyle.

Baptists in particular would do well to remember this given our emphasis on food and fellowship.

Zach Dawes is the managing editor for EthicsDaily.com. You can follow him on Twitter @ZachDawes_Jr.