ilk or Silk®? Eggs or tofu? Cheese or no cheese? Which is more healthful? The answer can depend on which Adventist health professional you ask. Opinions differ widely and sentiments run deep among not only health and wellness professionals but also many other church members. Is there any common ground on which all can agree? Adventist Review editor and executive publisher Bill Knott explored that question during an hour-long phone conference on April 23, 2009, with six prominent Adventist health professionals—and the answer might surprise you.
Here is a condensed version of the conversation with participants Peter Landless and Stoy Proctor, associates of the GC Health Ministries Department; Martina Karunia, vice president of the Seventh-day Adventist Dietetic Association; Hans Diehl, director of Lifestyle Medicine Institute; Wes Youngberg, director of Rancho Wellness Center; and John Kelly, adjunct faculty of the Department of Preventive Medicine, Loma Linda University School of Medicine.
KNOTT: We’re all aware of the growing importance of wellness and lifestyle medicine issues as they move on the disease continuum. Health is becoming a topic discussed more and more frequently in Adventist congregations—particularly in North America but also literally around the world. I’m hoping this conversation helps us to communicate sensitively the best information with one another and also with our wider Adventist audience.
Dr. Diehl, I’ll begin with you. You have stated that some 50,000 people—Adventists and others—have graduated from the CHIP program [Coronary Heart Improvement Project]. Many of these individuals have emerged from this lifestyle intervention program really passionate about the concepts and ideas they have learned: the lifestyle habits and new behaviors they can practice. What would you say as an educator to those individuals to prepare them to be members of a community that doesn’t see things in the same way?
DIEHL: I have two comments. One: there is no salvation by tofu. Making more healthful choices does not earn us brownie points in the celestial bank account. We don’t accept and practice a healthful lifestyle because we want to be saved but because we have been saved. As we experience the love of God in our hearts, it awakens in us a desire of wanting to bring our lifestyle into greater harmony with the heavenly design.
Two: In our church-conducted CHIP programs I try to make it very clear that health reformers are not self-righteous jackhammers who trounce others. Above all else, church CHIP leaders and the graduates should promote sensitivity toward others who may not see and practice some lifestyle aspects as we do. We emphasize the need for gentleness and understanding because the health practices can be quite divisive.
KNOTT: That’s a very useful construct. There’s something pastoral about your approach there.
YOUNGBERG: I appreciate what Dr. Diehl said. The health message is a calling to have a deeper relationship with each other and draws us to the most perfect relationship, which is with Jesus Christ. So often our health message is talked about as being the “right arm of the gospel,” the “good news,” but it can become the “closed fist of the right arm.” We need to present the health message as the open hand of the right arm of the gospel, which helps to draw people to Jesus. A health behavior change can certainly be used to attract people to the concepts of salvation, but it should never be thought of as a path that is required for salvation.
KNOTT: What techniques, if any, have worked to redress a situation in which lifestyle matters were becoming a polarizing issue?
YOUNGBERG: In my lifestyle seminars I try not to make diet the first topic discussed. My main goal is to build relationships with the community, to attract people to a message that has healing potential in their lives physically, emotionally, and spiritually. We don’t want to add divisiveness to this or people won’t be attracted to it. Once people understand the larger construct of health and all its associated factors, we then bring in a discussion about what foods in particular might be best for different people under what circumstances.
KNOTT: The most polarizing issue does seem to be diet. Topics such as exercise or rest usually aren’t divisive.
YOUNGBERG: I don’t lead with diet for that very reason. I don’t want to be cornered into focusing just on the do’s and don’ts regarding diet, because health and wellness and lifestyle medicine have to do with so many more things than that. Diet, however, does become very important, once it’s put into the right perspective.
DIEHL: What it boils down to is having a clear mind that facilitates a better perception of God acting on our behalf.
LANDLESS: I resonate with everything that has been said. Potlucks can be vegetarian, or mainly vegetarian, meals, but then people bring in unhealthful desserts and have three or four helpings. As practicing Adventist Christians with a health message, we should err on the side of some fruits and serve foods that are healthful and appropriate. The bottom line is to emphasize that good health is a gracious gift of God, which He wants His children to enjoy. But promoting a healthful diet can be hugely divisive, with people saying, “You’ve got to do it my way!”
When people say, “I’ve just been through a health program, and I’m going to throw away my blood pressure tablets, throw away my cholesterol tablets; I’m now released from those things”—problems can result. The consuming issue is not that we bow down and worship at the pharmacological idols, but there are certain areas where individuals need additional help. The crucial message, in a loving way, is that lifestyle is the cornerstone and foundation of change in that individual’s life.
KARUNIA: Earlier, Dr. Diehl talked about sensitivity toward others and dealing with people gently. I’d say those are key in being able to reach people, especially if the goal is to effect change. Whether the lifestyle change is eating better or more frequent exercise—or whatever the goal—sensitivity toward others and being gentle, those are key.
KNOTT: Dr. Kelly, you’ve had the opportunity to work internationally. Have you found that these lifestyle issues are more easily addressed in world regions outside North America?
KELLY: In the Marshall Islands—that’s where my overseas experience has been—there’s not much understanding of health principles.
KNOTT: Even among Adventist members?
KELLY: Yes. Not among the pastors and the conference leaders, but the average members there. They are interested in learning how to have better health, but it’s not a prominent part of their life.
I appreciate everything that has been said, and I totally agree. The reason we eat differently is not to be saved, but because we are saved. We’re talking about a spiritual issue that complicates not just diet but anything. If I become pharisaic in my approach to salvation, I’m going to have problems with all kinds of obedience, not just diet.
KNOTT: In many North American congregations there seems to be a particular overlay of morality included with issues of lifestyle, although it doesn’t sound like anything I’m hearing in this conversation. Can any of you speak to that point?
KARUNIA: I grew up in Indonesia, and I was not a vegetarian. I came to the U.S. and met an Indonesian woman who asked me if I was a vegetarian. I said “No,” and she responded, “Well, that means you have not accepted God fully.” Sometimes people judge and condemn others because of lifestyle issues when we really should be sensitive and gentle with others. Change is hard, and we need to understand that.
PROCTOR: In countries where Ellen White ministered most—the United States, Canada, Australia—a larger percent of our membership is vegetarian. But in most countries of the world I would suspect more than 90 percent of Adventists are not vegetarians. So we need to understand the concept of freedom of choice, even if church members choose to eat meat. It may not be the healthiest choice, but we must allow them to make that choice. We do, however, need to be sure people are eating a balanced diet and getting good
KARUNIA: If somebody feels accepted they are more willing to adopt lifestyle concepts. We also need to remember that there are people who are allergic to soy foods, which limits their choices.
LANDLESS: You can tell somebody anything if they know you love them, if you’ve demonstrated genuine caring for them. Relationships are key in behavioral changes—a relationship vertically and relationships horizontally.
KNOTT: My understanding, Drs. Diehl and Youngberg, of the way you’ve both designed your particular lifestyle programs is that you assess a person’s current state of health when they come to you, then you try to find those pieces in their experience that you can build on as motivational tools.
DIEHL: I present the message of health with the goal of preventing and reversing disease and optimizing health. I help our CHIP participants—through education, which includes a review of epidemiologic data and scientific evidence—to better understand the close association between their lifestyle and their diseases. How we choose to live our lives—how we eat and drink and exercise—can affect our spiritual lives.
YOUNGBERG: Many, many studies reveal how diet influences the mind, but many people reject aspects of the health message because of how they’re presented to them. If hostility is brought to bear in discussing these issues, that is actually far worse for an individual than the potential dietary indiscretions.
There’s good research now that demonstrates that forgiveness is one of the most powerful health interventions. It actually is the only antidote to hostility, which is a measure of inflammation—not just mysteriously or psychologically, but inflammation that’s physiologic. Everything in our health message should focus on helping people come to peace with broken relationships, not only with each other but that ultimate broken relationship that so many people have with God the Father.
KNOTT: That’s very well said. I think it would be a fascinating construct to think of our health message and our wellness message as focusing on issues of forgiveness and restoration as fully as they do on immediate lifestyle habits.
PROCTOR: Probably all of us at one time or another have led people to believe that we have all the answers for the prevention of disease. We might reduce the risk, but we cannot guarantee prevention. And we can’t put a guilt trip on people when they get a disease and make them feel that it was their fault. It may have nothing to do with anything they’ve done.
DIEHL: It’s devastating enough for people who have practiced healthful living to the best of their understanding and then become afflicted with a disease. Nothing could be worse under those circumstances than to blame the victim. It would be the greatest disservice we could render. True health reformers will always be the kindest, most gentle, most gracious people in our churches. Otherwise, they don’t qualify to be health leaders.
LANDLESS: We’ve talked a lot about diet, but we haven’t even mentioned caffeine or alcohol, which we like to think are not problems in our church—but they are indeed. Prob-
ably the greatest motivation to follow a healthful lifestyle is that the Lord communicates with us through His Spirit via our cerebral cortex. That has to be as clear as possible, has to be unsullied, has to be rested appropriately, and it needs to be devoid of addictive substances. The number one addictive substance in the world is caffeine. And among Adventists, it’s become a way of thumbing the nose, as it were, at the health message. But it’s a mind-altering substance. And I use that just as an example of where we really need to be.
KELLY: One of the things I find intriguing in the field of health is the boundary between science and revelation. As Adventists, we have a wonderful heritage of inspired guidance and counsel. We have something to offer that a secular scientist, a secular expert, doesn’t have. So while I believe we should be solid on our science, sometimes I follow practices based on my best understanding of revelation, not only on science.
PROCTOR: Sometimes Adventists are so concerned with issues such as the mixing of fruits and vegetables, whether to use milk or eggs; yet they neglect the weightier matters of health, such as tobacco, alcohol, caffeine, and the issue of flesh foods. The major problem we have among Adventists as well as the public is the eating of foods high in saturated fat and cholesterol, and low in fiber.
KNOTT: It’s fascinating to hear the common agreement, not only on a set of principles but on an approach to motivate people to make good choices, and to invite some tolerance, especially by those who are passionate about a new lifestyle.
If you were to give a one-sentence encapsulation to Adventists generally about how they should relate to other people who view lifestyle matters differently, what would you say?
YOUNGBERG: We need to be sensitive to others as well as provide good information that can have transforming power in their lives.
KARUNIA: Do not judge; understand that change is not easy, and
it takes support to make those changes.
DIEHL: A person truly interested in winning friends for Jesus will reach out to people to meet some of their needs in a sincere manner. As confidence builds and a friendship develops, they’ll be more open and inquisitive about our values and what makes us tick.
KELLY: People don’t care what I know until they know that I care, so I believe Jesus’ method is the one that gives us success.
LANDLESS: Demonstrate tolerance, loving inclusion,
and bridge differences with caring connectiveness, pressing together and not driving apart.
PROCTOR: Don’t give the impression that we have all the answers; giving people the benefit of some other choices may be the better part of valor.
KNOTT: I thank each of you, not only for this conversation but for putting out good information and helping people find the right reasons for moving toward good lifestyle changes. It’s not only Christ’s truth; it’s Christ’s method that you’ve alluded to, and that is really the winning combination.
The following is contact information for the participants: