The Saint Diet: some thoughts on food and sin

December 21, 2008 | 24 comments

This post is part of a series about re-thinking my relationship to food, which I call “The Saint Diet” to remind myself that the ultimate goal is deeper union with God. You can read all the posts on the subject here (scroll down to see them all).

I mentioned back in November that through prayer and spiritual direction I was dragged kicking and screaming into the realization that there are ways you can structure your lifestyle to make it more conducive to holiness (e.g. getting enough sleep, eating healthy foods, not getting overcommitted, etc.). As I detailed more in that post, I found that over and over again I felt drawn to focus on what I am eating and how it’s impacting my spiritual life.

Ever since then I’ve paid close attention to how food affects me, and the results were shocking: I knew that there was some connection, but I was amazed to see just how much what I eat impacts my life — particularly my spiritual life.

Never has it been more clear than this week.

Yaya is in town for a week, and our house has been full of cookies and biscotti and caramel popcorn and all sorts of other tempting Christmas goodies. The combination of the usual little tensions of a week-long in-law visit with simple carbs has made me realize that what I eat is having a tremendous impact on my ability to live out the Christian beliefs I profess.

Here is an example of two different occasions this week when I was in frustrating situations, noting how I handled each one and what I’d eaten in the hours beforehand:


Breakfast: White bagel, sugar cookie, handful of caramel-drenched popcorn
Anger Level (scale of 1-10): 8
Ability to Remain Calm and Charitable (scale of 1-10): 2
Internal Dialogue: [deleted due to explicit content]


Breakfast: Steel-cut oats oatmeal, two apple slices
Anger Level: 1
Ability to Remain Calm and Charitable: 8
Internal Dialogue: “Sure, Yaya and I have different ways of doing things, and occasionally the way she phrases her constructive criticism makes me feel defensive, but how insignificant is that compared to all the ways she helps us? And, for that matter, she often has good points, if I’d only be willing to listen in humility. How blessed am I to have a mother-in-law who is willing to cook and clean and take great care of all the kids to give me a break, even if I find her methods a bit unorthodox at times?”

Thursday morning I was an angry, bitter troll of a person; Friday morning I felt calm and peaceful and was able to take it all in stride and count my blessings. And what I ate in the hours beforehand had a lot to do with it.

These two examples are consistent with what I have observed over and over again in the past month. I have realized that my tendency to sin — to lash out, to indulge in self-centered behavior, the think angry or uncharitable thoughts, to turn away from God — is tremendously impacted by my diet. Eating healthy won’t make me a saint, of course; but it will remove a lot of the mood fluctuations that leave me extremely susceptible to temptation to sin.

I think it’s not a coincidence that this realization comes to me while I’m pregnant.

Because of my tendency toward vanity, it’s always been hard for me to make any healthy eating plan as much about health as it should be; too often good intentions to improve my health eventually become more about size eight jeans than overall wellness. But, at 28 weeks pregnant, this time my motivation can’t be weight loss. I have to want to change my diet for the impact it will have on my health (and by extension the baby’s health) and my spiritual life, and nothing else.

So this is what’s on my mind as a new year approaches:

Though I’ve never been seriously overweight, all my life I’ve had an unhealthy attachment to unhealthy foods and have repeatedly failed to do anything about it on a permanent basis. I think that part of the reason for that has been my inability to extricate vanity from the process — though there’s nothing wrong with wanting to look your best, with me that too easily slips into indulging in the sin of vanity. And when your motivation is rooted in sin, it’s going to be impossible to make deep, lasting changes in your life for the better.

Now that the option of weight loss has been taken off the table, I’m left to approach my relationship to food with a completely different state of mind. I’m left to pray not about how I can lose that last 10 pounds, but about how I can find the foods that will give me energy and stamina to lose some bad spiritual habits. My motivating visual now is not the image of me in a beautiful dress, but the image of me in a beautiful state of mind.

My New Year’s Resolutions almost always involve some great desire to change my eating habits, and this year is no exception. But, for the first time, weight has nothing to do with it. I want to get serious about cutting out unhealthy foods and eating a diet based on fresh fruits and vegetables and lean meats and whole grains because, without vanity clouding my eyes, I can finally see what food is doing to me — and it’s worse than just not being able to wear that size “medium” sweater.

I haven’t quite figured out what my specific plan will be, but I’m ready to change. And I think I’m finally ready to change for the right reasons.


  1. Anonymous

    I understand. I get ill and very moody whenever I eat chocolate (or any caffeine containing substance). Every so often I try again and I always pay for it (as does everyone else around me). I had not considered the spiritual aspect though.

  2. bearing

    Wow, Jen.

    …. I’m left to pray not about how I can lose that last 10 pounds, but about how I can find the foods that will give me energy and stamina to lose some bad spiritual habits. My motivating visual now is not the image of me in a beautiful dress, but the image of me in a beautiful state of mind.

    I have some really good news for you:

    This is an excellent set of goals.

    What’s fantastic about them is that they are so very short-term. Each day, heck, each meal and snack is an opportunity for you to either (a) be an achiever by meeting a goal you’ve already set or (b) learn something about a goal you ought to set in coming days and weeks.

    You have the freedom and the time to perform little experiments: “Hm, do I feel and behave better if I have eggs with my oatmeal?” “Do I feel and behave better if I have a big breakfast and a small midmorning snack, or if I have a light breakfast and a large snack?”

    What’s great about this is that all your focus is on not some dream of fitting into a dress, or hitting some number that’s months and months away, but on your OWN behavior, the one thing that you can change immediately at every moment. I swear this is one of the reasons why I succeeded this year: I stopped concentrating on my desire to lose weight and started desiring to eat less food, be less gluttonous.

    It never hurts, btw, to ask Him that he remove all attachment to food other than Himself.

  3. Candace Jean July 16

    Kudos to you, and I agree 110%. Having been a "nuts and twigs" eater for the better part of the last 30 years (along with lots of f&v, not much meat, and lots of fish), it has made a huge impact on my health. I wish you the best. It's worth every bite! 1 Corinthians 6:19.

  4. bearing

    (By the way, Jen — I practically have to sit on my hands to keep from spouting advice right now, but I’ll do my best to wait for you to post some more.. My commenters had a lot of great things to say on the various posts I made while I was turning myself into a non-glutton this year. Christy P especially had a good comment here.)

  5. Maggie

    Hello Jennifer

    As a Catholic who loves her faith, I love your blog and have enjoyed reading about your journey. Today’s post struck a cord with me because cooking and eating healthy is what I base my life on – personally and professionally. My family and I feel and “act” so much better, so much more like the “best version of ourselves” (as Matthew Kelly says)when we eat well. I invite you to visit my blog and take whatever tidbits you find to help you with this journey in eating better all day, every day. Good luck!

  6. Heather

    When it comes to learning to eat healthy and focus on God’s purpose for food instead of our corruption of it (and the sin resulting) I heartily recommend They have anadditional fasting thing you can do with it but I just did the Bible study and focused on eating healthy and it made a huge difference in my attitude towards food and God. And REALLY helped my attitude towards the rest of my stuff once the sugar highs and cranky stuff were under control.

  7. Ken & Carol

    Is it the food or the guilty/virtuous feelings after the food? I like your honesty in dealing with yourself. Keep up the good work.

  8. Jennifer @ Conversion Diary

    Thanks for your comments – Bearing, Maggie and Heather – I look forward to reading those links.

    Per the comment re: the use of “healthy” and “healthful” that I was asked not to publish: according to Merriam Webster, “healthy” can also mean “conducive to health.” Thanks for the tip though!

  9. Stretch Mark Mama

    Totally agree.

    I find that with me (and the kids) that if we’re going to eat treats (sweets), we have to tuck them in after we’ve had a decent meal. It does far less damage to the blood sugar that way.

    Holidays excluded (argh), we try to keep our after-meal treats to a piece of quality chocolate (i.e., dark – and not hershey’s or candy bars) (and NOT refined flours) and that seems to meet the need for the “treat” w/o wreaking our moods.

  10. Sara

    That is such a great point, Jen. I’ve been trying to take the vanity out of dieting and stop eating the carbs for my good health, but some say that’s just throwing in the towel.

    My family is being particularly ugly this year because of all the sugar they’ve been eating. IT doesn’t help that I’ve been eating it too and getting crankier!

  11. Jenny Lewis

    Hi Jennifer,
    I have been saying this for the longest time, but most people don’t see the connection – mostly because I think you have to purge your system (cleanse the temple) and then eat the bad stuff to really see their effects (hmmm, very analogous to sacrament of confession and sin). The problem with them also is that once you introduce them back in, they tend to cause cravings for the same. And, as a physical therapist, I also propose that these foods will make your muscles and joints achy and flare an already underlying ailment as they cause an inflammatory reaction in a lot of people. Yeah, as you can imagine, that goes over really well with folks. So, yeah, aiming for a beautiful state of mind will get you the rest – naturally. God Bless you…your blog is just so relevant and I need these little reminders to stay on track myself.

  12. tom faranda

    Great post and great comments.

  13. Carrien

    You may find the low GI diet helpful. It approaches every food combination on terms of how it affects your blood sugar levels.

    As a hypoglycemic I have lived with this realization for several years now. In fact my marriage has been saved by the words, “Have you eaten?” All conversations are suspended until I have something wholesome in my body to regulate my emotions, at which point most of them are no longer conversations we need to have. 🙂

    Protein is the most important thing to watch for me. I can have a certain amount of simple carbs, say after dinner, if I have had ample enough protein to slow it’s immediate absorbtion. It’s a balancing act, but one that has kept me sane.

    Now I’m being convicted about getting enough sleep.

  14. Diane L. Harris

    Jennifer, I feel like God had you write this post just for me. I’m struggling with the same issue just now. I know how seriously my body is impacted by the wrong foods, and yet I can do so well for months or years and then jump (not fall) off the the wagon again. However, I didn’t think about how this was affecting my spiritual life until I read your words.

    See, this is why you are one of my favorite bloggers (one of my favorite writers, period) and I mentioned your site in my latest post entitled “My 5 Favorite Christian Blogs (This Week)”.

    Bless you

  15. Marian

    Thanks for writing this. I’ve been thinking about my relationship with food, weight, moods, health, etc, and what is the best approach to addressing it all for ME.

  16. Catholic Bibliophagist

    Do you have any Type 2 diabetes in your family? If so, you may have an additional reason to eat a more healthy diet. Diabetes side effects can start years before there is a measurable rise in your blood sugar.

    I always found that sweets and fast acting carbs sent me soaring up and crashing down. And letting myself get too hungry made me so irritable that I would be exploding at people.

    I found that it helped to eat some protein with all of my meals. Kept me on a more even keel.

    Now that I’m prediabetic I’ve discovered the reasons my body was behaving that way.

  17. Isle Dance

    Absolutely! Well realized! You go, girl! :o)

  18. Teri

    I have your blog along with most recent title in my blog sidebar. When I saw the title today I was tempted to ignore it because I am often convicted about my own eating habits and didn’t feel like being convicted today. Went ahead and clicked over and I’m glad I did. I can relate to all of what you have experienced with food – but I especially like this line:

    “My motivating visual now is not the image of me in a beautiful dress, but the image of me in a beautiful state of mind.”

    I think changing my “motivating visual” in this way would be fantastic! We’ll see how it goes. Praying for you (and me!)

  19. Shelly W

    Wow, Jennifer. You’ve given me something to really think about . . . as usual. Thanks.

  20. Veronica Mitchell

    My history w/ food involves eating disorders, and the spiritual side to eating has been part of healing for me, in a different way than for you. I learned to treat fasting the way alcoholics treat alcohol; it’s just not something I can do. The spiritual discipline for me is showing submission to Christ by eating like “normal person.” That can be an exraordinary challenge for me.

  21. Liberty


  22. Mommy, M.D.

    Thank you for this series. We protestants don't get much teaching on this, and it's our loss. I've learned a lot by reading your posts about food, especially this one.

    I'm linking to this series from my blog. Thanks.

  23. Carline

    I have been struggling with this same issue. You have no idea how much this has helped me! Thanks so much and good luck with everything!

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