Catholics address spiritual roots of overeating


Atkins. South Beach. Nutrisystem. Every new year brings a new diet. But St. Andrew parishioner Virginia Marquez of Eagle River, Alaska believes every one of them lacks the essential element for losing weight: God.

That’s because overeating has more to do with “the hole in your heart” than a bottomless stomach, Marquez told the Catholic Anchor in an interview.

Enter “Light Weigh” – a Catholic spiritual growth and weight loss program in which Marquez and a growing number of other repeat dieters in Alaska and across the U.S. and several other English-speaking nations are satiating spiritual hunger and keeping the pounds off in the process.

A Spiritual Diet

The ubiquitous problems of overeating and obesity are rarely connected to underlying spiritual issues – which makes Light Weigh unique. The program promises participants will learn “to attain peace with food” by following the example of Jesus and the saints.

Marquez, who runs a Light Weigh program at St. Andrew Church in Eagle River, calls it “divinely inspired.”

It may be the only diet plan that comes with a “spiritual tool kit” that consists of prayer books, holy water, rosaries and “sacrifice beads” – a strand of sliding beads by which participants track dieting sacrifices they make daily. Nineteenth-century Carmelite nun Saint Therese of Lisieux used them to make her “Little Way” – performing small acts of love and sacrifice to achieve holiness.

“That’s one of our goals,” said Marquez, “to adopt the ‘Little Way’ and to do little things, little lifestyle changes that bring about better health, and that’s what God wants for us – to be in optimum health.”

According to the Bible and the saints, “gluttony is a problem” for body and soul, Marquez explained.  Twentieth-century priest Saint Josemaria Escriva once observed that “overeating is the forerunner to impurity.”

The answer is to “ask Jesus to eat with you and to help you eat right,” said Marquez.

So, once a week for 12 weeks, adult and teen participants meet in small groups at a parish or at home for prayer, a reflection on Scripture and a video lesson on church teaching or the saints focused on a particular theme. Then, there’s a short talk on an area of food. On their own, participants listen to audio lessons and testimonies on CDs, journal and do workbook exercises.

There is a $135 fee for materials. The group at St. Andrew formed last summer; others have sprung up at St. Patrick in Anchorage and other parishes of the Anchorage Archdiocese.

"Heart Hunger"

Each week, there is an Ignatian-styled review – based on the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius of Loyola. Participants choose one fault to work on in the coming week. At the end of each day, individually, they review how they did and whether they struggled. They consider what they will do in “prayer and action” next time, and if they succeeded, how Jesus helped them.

The spiritual inventory helps participants identify “stomach hunger versus heart hunger” and learn to respond appropriately, said Marquez.

“If you feel this longing and you think, ‘Oh, if I could just eat something and I’d feel better,’ that’s a spiritual hole,” she explained. “Other people fill it with alcohol or smoking…overeaters tend to fill it with food.”

But that “hole in your heart” is “a call from God,” Marquez observed. “He made us this way so we would want to call for him,” she explained. “So what we need is prayer…to be nourished by his Word.” In fact, one of Light Weigh’s mantras is, “The walk to the refrigerator is just as far as the walk to the Bible.”

Doughnuts in Moderation

Along with prayer, Light Weigh stresses moderation.

“Your body is a temple,” said Marquez. “God gave us these bodies. We didn’t make them. And our body gives us signals when we need things. You know when you’re thirsty, so you drink. And you wait until you’re hungry before you eat,” she said. But that’s “a discipline that most of us have, many of us, I know I have, overridden through habits early in life: eating because of stress, eating because of social situations.”

As with other addictions, she said, “You have to turn over your will to God and say, ‘God, help me with this. I don’t want to over-eat, I don’t want to abuse my body in any way.’ And ask him to guide you.”

Participants learn to eat proportionately-sized amounts of food and only until they are just satiated. And whenever the old overeating habits return, participants “turn to prayer to overcome the compulsion.”

“We’re trying to get back to that natural way of responding to our bodies’ needs,” explained Marquez.

No foods are off-limits. “It’s not what goes into you that’s evil, it’s what comes out of you,” said Marquez, referencing Christ’s spiritual maxim from the Gospel.

“You can eat anything you want, as long as you just eat a finite amount of it,” she continued. In the videos, participants learn how to consume “very delectable foods in very reasonable quantities” – including doughnuts and pizza, which makes Marquez happy. Even with those carbohydrates and fats, since the first session in June, the 46-year-old has lost 20 pounds – and other participants have lost in the “double digits,” as well.

The Narrow Way

Although most are first drawn to Light Weigh to lose weight, they find the weight loss to be a “fringe benefit,” Marquez noted. As it turns out, these dieters are becoming spiritual heavy weights. The Light Weigh program, she said, means a “deepening of our faith.”

So is the Light Weigh program the answer to the never-ending cycle of diet fads? Marquez thinks so, precisely because it’s not the “world’s diet.”

Jesus Christ said that neither he nor his Kingdom is “of this world,” said Marquez, so “we know through our faith, the way the world is going is not the way we are called to go. We are called to go the narrow way. And that’s what this is. It’s very simple. It’s very truthful.”

Printed with permission from the Catholic Anchor, newspaper for the Archdiocese of Anchorage, Alaska.

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