There is a common English saying, “You are what you eat.” It suggests that if you eat a lot of fatty foods or sugary foods, you will suffer the consequences– you will become fat or develop health problems associated with sugar, cholesterol, etc. There is some truth to the saying, especially if a person eats such foods to excess, and does not eat a balanced diet that also includes foods high in fiber, vitamins and minerals, and other nutrients.
But the saying also suggests that a person’s diet determines their identity, which is not true, and often involves labeling and unfair judgment. And the judgment comes, not just based on what a person eats, but sometimes how, when, and where a person eats:
“junk food junkie”
“see-food diet (if I see it, I eat it!)”
“fitness diet– I’m all about fitness (fittin’this) whole pizza in my mouth!”
The truth is, our relationship to food can indicate aspects of our personality or character, but it is not “who we are,” unless our entire life is about food. (Even for those with conditions like anorexia or bulimia that turn food and/or eating into an obsession, it is one aspect of their life–a diagnosis, not an epitaph.)
Our world today is filled with opportunities to make an idol of food and eating, diets, nutritional fads, supplements, etc. We end up ashamed of every meal– counting calories, pointing fingers at those whose eating habits don’t live up to our standards (while secretly envying them), trying to excuse (or hide) any trip through the fast food drive-thru window, feeling guilty over a candy bar, or feeling depressed when we cannot afford to eat like the people we see in magazines, in movies, or on TV. In religious circles, we champion “God-given” diets, some of which are not given by God. “What would Jesus eat?” The Daniel Diet, or The Shepherd’s Diet– these may be good principles and even helpful nutritionally, but they won’t “save” you or make God love you better than He already does.
Jesus himself addressed this question. His disciples were being singled out by the religious leaders of their day because they ate without performing the ritual handwashing ceremonies. They were declared “unclean” for eating in this manner. But Jesus saw through this criticism. It wasn’t based on God’s law, but on the human traditions that had been added over the centuries. What God had said about cleanliness and hygiene was meant for general health AND to distinguish the nation of Israel from other cultures whose eating practices were sometimes part of their worship of idols. After chastising the Pharisees for their hypocrisy, Jesus turns to the crowd:
Matthew 15:10-20 English Standard Version (ESV)
10 And he called the people to him and said to them, “Hear and understand: 11 it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” 12 Then the disciples came and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?” 13 He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up. 14 Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” 15 But Peter said to him, “Explain the parable to us.” 16 And he said, “Are you also still without understanding? 17 Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? 18 But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. 19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. 20 These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.”
Notice that Jesus does not say that it is healthier or better to eat with unwashed hands, nor does He say that people should eat without washing– instead, He is speaking common sense about obsessive and judgmental practices. Jesus himself followed the traditional kosher diet of His people, as did His disciples. Jesus also fasted, and recommended it as a companion to disciplined and earnest prayer.
It isn’t what we eat, or when or where that makes us who we are. Our eating habits and diets may help our bodies, but they won’t save our souls, or make us better than our neighbor. In fact, if our eating habits are more important than our neighbor–if we use them to try to manipulate, control, shame, or label our neighbor–we need to reconsider how “healthy” they really are.
Diets are not bad. Food is not bad. Pride, envy, self-righteousness– these are bad for the heart, the stomach, and the soul. Let’s be grateful for food, but even more, let’s be grateful for a God who knows us intimately and thoroughly– a God who knows that we are NOT “what we eat!”