Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

In the beginning: the Bible’s solution to obesity

Josie Hulme
North Ogden, Utah, United States


“Feasting on the word of God” takes on another meaning when searching the scriptures for instruction on healthy eating. By Emma Hulme

One Bible story clearly related to health is that of Daniel. Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, had conquered the people of Judah and brought many Israelites back to his own land. To speed the cultural assimilation of his new subjects, he commanded that some of the choicest youth be brought to his household to live among his own children and those of his nobles. “Children in whom was no blemish, but well favored, and skillful in all wisdom, and cunning in knowledge, and understanding science, and such as had ability in them to stand in the king’s palace, and whom they might teach the learning and the tongue of the Chaldeans” (Daniel 1:4). Among these young men was Daniel. Whether you believe the Bible is the Word of God or just a great way to press flowers, there is no denying its place in world literature. “[The Bible’s] format is the literary anthology – a collection of varied literary genres written by multiple authors over the span of many centuries. In its details, too, the Bible is a literary book. Most of it is embodied in the genres of narrative, poetry, letters, and visionary writing. Dozens of smaller genres accumulate under those big rubrics” (Ryken 2014). Many nuggets of wisdom can be found within its pages: exciting tales of heroism, eloquent parables brimming with insight, and astute stories exposing the human condition with all its complications, strengths, and flaws.

To prepare them to serve in his household, the king offered the youth a three-year course of study—probably the best education available at that time—and meat and drink from his own table, foods that God had commanded Daniel not to eat, rich and complicated foods that only the wealthy could afford. Daniel convinced the king’s servant to conduct an experiment: Daniel and his friends would eat the food that they knew to be healthy (consisting largely of whole grains) while the other young men would eat the king’s food. If, in ten days, Daniel and his friends appeared better than the others, they would be allowed to continue to eat that way.

Needless to say, “. . . at the end of ten days their countenances appeared fairer and fatter in flesh than all the children which did eat the portion of the king’s meat” (Daniel 1:15). Daniel showed that what you eat has a huge impact on your physical health, even on your appearance.

The diet gap still exists today, and it still follows socio-economic lines, but there has been a switch: the wealthy are eating healthily, and the poor are eating . . . well, poorly.

According to the USDA, food-secure households spent 30 percent more on food than their food-insecure peers in 2013, and that includes expenditures from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. It’s hard to think about making “healthy choices,” when the need to avoid hunger becomes urgent. On a per-calorie basis, junk food is still much cheaper than the healthy stuff that’s highly valued in the Harvard study. People don’t eat more food when they gain income, but they do tend to pay up for better food (Philpott 2014).

Ideas for bridging this gap include better education, reformation of the SNAP program to include incentives for healthy eating, and insurance discounts for healthy behaviors.

Diet is the most important component in weight loss. Exercise is valuable and has benefits far beyond weight loss, but “. . . when it comes to reaching a healthy weight, what you don’t eat is much, much more important” (Carroll 2015). Despite this fact, America’s obsession with exercise for weight loss continues as millions spend hours at the gym but cannot find the time to cook a healthy meal at home.

There are many heroes in the Old Testament, but none as legendary as Moses, the leader of the children of Israel. Among his many accomplishments are plaguing the Egyptians, parting the Red Sea, and causing water, manna, and quail to miraculously appear. One of his feats that gets hardly any column inches is the story of the fiery, or poisonous, serpents.

As a severe method of humbling his people (since they whined about everything, including the miraculous manna), God sent fiery serpents among them. Anyone bitten by one of these serpents died. Humility—or at least the panic-induced equivalent—ensued, and Moses prayed to God to have the serpents taken away. God told Moses to make a brass serpent, put it on a staff and raise it up. “. . . and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived” (Numbers 21:9).

The Book of Mormon, another religious text, gives an account of this same story and says that “. . . because of the simpleness of the way, or the easiness of it, there were many who perished” (Nephi 17:41). The Bible records a similar reaction by Naaman, a great and important man from Syria, who was stricken with leprosy. He went to the prophet Elisha to be healed and received the directive to wash seven times in the Jordan River. He stormed away from the prophet’s house, outraged and offended at the ridiculous instructions until his servants said, “. . . if the prophet had bid thee do some great thing, wouldest thou not have done it?” (2 Kings 5:13) He washed and was healed.

Why is it that convoluted diets and expensive supplements have more appeal than the simple, time-honored steps of eating less and eating better? Small steps, taken consistently, will lead to lasting results and changed habits. Systems do not have to be complex in order to work, and yet we expect that the more costly, the more sophisticated a plan is, the more efficacious it must be. Could it be that we are looking for a reason to fail? Perhaps it is nice to have the ready excuse that it really was too hard.

There is another story about Moses that illustrates one of the best ways to succeed at any goal, including weight loss. During the Battle of Rephidim, the Amalekites attacked the Israelites. Moses noticed that whenever he raised his hands the Israelites prevailed, but if he lowered his hands the Amalekites prevailed. As any good leader would, he kept his hands raised and his people started trouncing the Amalekites. But desire was not enough. Weary muscles began to tremble and the weight of his hands became too great. Two friends stepped in “. . . and [they] stayed up his hands, the one on the one side, and the other on the other side; and his hands were steady until the going down of the sun” (Exodus 17:12).

This same idea is a key to success in weight loss. Health coaches and mentors or groups of like-minded individuals often have more success than someone trying to do it alone.

Health coaches don’t focus solely on things like reducing calories or increasing exercise. Instead, they teach the principles of behavioral modification and help clients overcome the psychological barriers that keep them from achieving their goals on a daily basis. They also do an effective job of convincing clients that, to really make permanent and positive changes in their lives, they must commit to working toward living a healthier lifestyle today, tomorrow, and for the rest of their lives (ACE 2012).

Changing habits is hard, and our culture, where most social events center on food and drink, makes changing poor eating habits even harder. Having a support network can provide the additional strength and determination needed to make the healthy choice.

Adam and Eve share a final lesson with us: there are just some things that one should never eat. Harmful drugs top the list, but not far behind are trans fats, high fructose corn syrup, deep-fried foods, sodas and energy drinks, and white flour and sugar. The first words in the Bible are “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth,” (Genesis 1:1) and most of us will agree that it is very good. The earth provides the clean diet of whole foods that nature intended for human consumption. Swimming in its oceans, rambling through its woods, or climbing its craggy peaks are some of the most enjoyable forms of exercise available and an excellent natural anti-depressant. The closer we stay to the earth, the healthier we are. By consistently choosing the healthy option, avoiding diet fads and complicated weight loss schemes, finding a support network, and avoiding harmful, calorie-laden foods, obesity can be overcome. It is difficult and takes a long time (like reading the Bible) but it is possible and worth it.

Just as it begins, the Bible ends with words of peace and hope and gentle instruction. “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen” (Revelation 22:21). Whether you believe in God or Allah, Mother Nature, or simply your best self, reach for that higher power and allow it to change your mind and heart—your body will follow . .  naturally.



  1. 2 Kings. 5:13. 2 Kings 5:13. King James Bible.
  2. ACE. 2012. “Certified News.” ACE, October.
  3. Carroll, Aaron E. 2015. “To Lose Weight, Eating Less Is Far More Important Than Exercising More.” NY Times, June 15.
  4. Daniel. 1:15. Daniel 1:15. King James Bible.
  5. Daniel. 1:4. Daniel 1:4. King James Bible.
  6. Exodus. 17:12. Exodus 17:12. King James Bible.
  7. Genesis. 1:1. Genesis 1:1. King James Bible.
  8. Nephi, 1. 17:41. 1 Nephi 17:41. Book of Mormon.
  9. Numbers. 21:9. Numbers 21:9. King James Bible.
  10. Philpott, Tom. 2014. “The Rich are Eating Richer, the Poor are Eating Poorer.” Mother Jones, September 11.
  11. Revelation. 22:21. Revelation 22:21. King James Bible.
  12. Ryken, Leland. 2014. “The Bible as Literature.” The Washington Times, December 11.



JOSIE HULME is a writer, wife, and stay-at-home mother of five who has struggled with her weight all of her adult life. At the age of forty she put into practice the principles of this essay and began to see results. As her health continues to improve, she looks forward to traveling, hiking, and writing for the next forty years.


Winter 2018  |  Sections  |  Food

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