Thinking About...Dietary Guidelines

I’ve been thinking about dietary guidelines. Glamorous stuff, I know. Partly inspired by Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, partly motivated by the eating habits of my own kids, at a dinner party this weekend, I took part in an impassioned conversation about the state of American school lunches. Then today I stumbled across this article on the Atlantic Monthly’s online Food Channel that suggests abolishing the whole dietary guideline system. I know. That’s nutritional blasphemy for all of us who remember well the laminated posters featuring the pyramidal shape our eating habits should mimic. Without it how will our children learn to eat the right geometrical ratio of grains, fruits and vegetables, and (dreaded) fats and sugars?

Why Guidelines Fail

What really interested me about the article had nothing to do with food or diets or nutrition. I was struck at the spiritual corollaries for the author’s every point. His answers to why dietary guidelines fail find chilling resonance with why religious guidelines likewise fail.

First, he says, prescriptions are difficult to follow. As he explains, ‘Driving attention to what’s in food rather than the end product is an abstraction.” Likewise, churches are good at talking in the abstract. Whether it is abstracted sin or abstracted holiness, Christianity too often is unhitched from real-life and therefore makes no impact.

Second, they’re in a different language. He means that dietary guidelines are given in metric grams while we live in a world of pounds. Equally, the church often speaks in a foreign language of sin and righteousness altogether detached from the ‘real life.’ Sunday’s ‘trespasses’ and ‘transgressions’ just don’t connect to Monday’s anger,  jealousy, or complaining.

Third, the guidelines take a one-size-fits-all approach. Similarly our formulas for religion fail to account for individuals. We must recover a theology of a personal God (including a personal Holy Spirit) who works grace in people’s lives in individual ways. Such a correction doesn't exclude general-izable principles, but it cautions against un-reflective application of rules.

Fourth, they offer a micro problem to a macro problem. We often become fixated on the specific symptomatic problems in our lives while failing to address the root problem of our hearts. Many times the Christian effort toward holiness (‘following the guidelines’) amounts to little more than what others have called fruit-stapling. We take steps to modify behavior (fruit-stapling) without realizing that the root of our behavior (whether good or bad) is the heart.

Grace Succeeds

The fundamental flaw in guidelines (be they dietary or spiritual) is their inability to effect change. They are full of promise, but fail to deliver. Only grace (God’s grace) can deliver because only God’s grace can change the heart. As Paul Zahl writes in Grace in Practice, “Unlike the law, which produces the opposite of what it demands, grace succeeds. It produces the fruit, to use the New Testament metaphor, of a law-congruent life.”