By Jay Engelbrecht
My grandmother quoted Scripture to warn me against the evils of alcohol. But today another culprit wreaks equal, if not greater, harm.
“Never take a drink and you’ll never become a drunk.” When my grandmother admonished me to avoid alcohol, she did me a world of good. Her advice spared me weight gain, high blood pressure, heart disease, certain types of cancer, diabetes, and dementia
Thanks, Grandma. Of course, she cared more about my character than the physical impact of alcohol. Her view on alcohol was influenced by Deuteronomy 21:20: “They shall say to the elders, ‘This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.’” She quoted extensively from the book of Proverbs; for example, “For drunkards and gluttons become poor” (23:21).
But today I’m not writing about whether or not Christians should drink alcohol. I want to consider, instead, another substance abuse far more prevalent, and many Christians imbibe without consideration or conscience.
Matthew J. Feinstein, lead researcher in an 18-year longitudinal study at Northwestern University, looked at his data and commented, “We don’t know why frequent religious participation is associated with development of obesity, but the upshot is these findings highlight a group that could benefit from targeted efforts at obesity prevention.”
Chances are, the person in the pew beside you is not a drunkard. Statistically, of the three people sitting beside you on Sunday, two of them are overweight or obese.
Are they gluttons? I doubt it.
Supply and Demand
Let me give you some history. For many centuries sugar was hard to come by. Sugar cane, the raw material, requires tropical weather—lots of rain and heat—and the tropics were off the beaten path. For centuries, sugar’s “high price and exotic origin meant that it was considered as either a spice or a drug,” according to A History of Britain, Volume II. Aristocratic families could afford only a pound or two a year, and if you were poor, forget about it.
That all changed in the 17th century when British profiteers stumbled upon three cash crops: tobacco, tea, and sugar, all harvested by another lucrative commodity, slaves.
In A History of Britain, Simon Schama writes, “From the beginning the British Empire was habit-forming. The genial encouragement of addiction was its specialty—a quiet smoke, a nice cup of tea, a sweet tooth. . . . ”
Fast-forward to America’s heartland in the 1970s. Richard Nixon is president and wants to stay that way. He appoints Earl Butz as secretary of agriculture with a simple mandate: lower the cost of food.
United States agricultural policy did a U-turn under Butz, from paying farmers not to produce (keeping supply low and prices high) to paying farmers to produce (keeping supply high and food prices low.) Food prices declined, Nixon was reelected, and corn became America’s agricultural king.
One unintended consequence of this was that the Iowa family farm virtually disappeared. But Iowa corporate farms, year after year, produced gargantuan yields. Cheap corn was everywhere, mountains of it.
In modern life, invention is the mother of necessity. Mass production of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) started in 1970, an import from Japan’s Agency of Industrial Science and Technology. Sugar had been inexpensive for years, but HFCS was dirt cheap thanks to corn subsidies. As a consequence, HFCS became ubiquitous in manufactured foods.
“Note well what is before you, and put a knife to your throat if you are a man given to gluttony,” warns Proverbs 23:1, 2. What’s before you in most packaged food is corn, often as HFCS. Growing up, our cattle grazed on grass until we decided to fatten them. Then we fed them corn; 100 grams of corn contains 64 calories, but 100 grams of HFCS contain 281 calories.
A century ago farmers turned corn into pork by feeding it to pigs, or into alcohol. Today, corporate farms sell corn to food conglomerates who morph it into processed foods.
Star Trek fans know the scenario. With ship and crew in danger, Captain Kirk implores Scotty for more power. Scotty responds, “I’m giving it all I’ve got,” and manages, exhausted, to hit warp speed, saving the USS Enterprise.
Your blood sugar likes to be even keeled, just like Scotty prefers coasting at sub-light speed. When you eat real food, energy flows through you so uncomplicatedly, you’re unaware of it.
But sugar and HFCS hit the bloodstream like a drunk driver at rush hour. Your liver, a dependable steady Eddie, senses danger. To your liver, sugar and HFCS are toxins—threats. In self-defense, the liver converts them to something less harmful, at least in the short term—fat.
The sugar you just chugged is altered (to fat), then transported like hazardous waste, a freight train speeding to your hips. Even as your liver works overtime, the pancreas—a high-strung, nervous Nellie—panics, pumping insulin like the old fire brigades. Frightened, your pancreas overreacts, whiplashing you from sugar high to sugar low.
Guess what—your normal, reliable flow of energy in the bloodstream just boomeranged from warp factor 10 to rock bottom, so you’re hungry again—even while the fat train rumbles along.
Metabolically, you don’t need to be a glutton to gain weight; it’s actually pretty easy. Do you ever feel tired and sluggish after a sugary meal? You’re packing away fat. Do you ever eat and still feel hungry? Craving sugar? You are packing on fat even as you contemplate what to grab next. The myth of Tantalus has come to life, always seeking to eat and drink, never satisfied.
I heard a mom tell her son, after he had just had a can of soda, “No more until you eat some real food.” Not to worry, the kid’s going to be hungry soon whether he drinks another soda or not; the sugar content guarantees it.
Had my grandmother known all this, she might have paraphrased the opening verse of Proverbs 20 to read, “Sugar is a mocker. And whoever is led astray by it is not wise.” Avoiding sugar spares us weight gain, high blood pressure, heart disease, certain types of cancer, diabetes, and dementia.
Another Scripture verse Grandma lived by was, “Walk with the wise and become wise” (Proverbs 13:20). Michael Pollan, a wise man, recommends elegantly simple, practical guidelines on what and how to eat. He says: first, eat food. Second, not too much. Third, mostly plants.
Proverbs 23:3 says, “Do not crave his delicacies, for that food is deceptive.” Each of us has more access to deceptive delicacies than even King Solomon in all his splendor.
I know you’ve seen lists of super foods: apples, beans, blueberries, garlic, oats, onions, oranges, pumpkin, strawberries, walnuts, almonds—gifts from a wise creator.
After God spoke us into creation he blessed us and said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food” (Genesis 1:29).
As an act of obedience, Daniel aligned his eating to scriptural wisdom, requesting “vegetables to eat and water to drink” (Daniel 1:12).
I’d love for my three children to be like Daniel—living from a different playbook in a deceptive culture. To that end, I pass along my grandmother’s advice to avoid alcohol. And I pray they’ll also have the sense not to overindulge sugar. Our bodies are gifts from God. The way we care for them is our gift to him.
Jay Engelbrecht teaches lifetime wellness at Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri.