How Faith and Health Go Hand in Hand

Regardless of religion, we should all be rooting for mega-pastor Rick Warren and his new fitness plan

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Donna McWilliam / AP

Evangelical pastor Rick Warren.

Rick Warren changed my world view within an hour of my meeting him. We were speaking in earnest about the work he is doing to deliver basic health services in Sub-Saharan Africa. I was impressed by his genuine desire to be of service to the world — something he wrote about at length in his bestseller The Purpose Driven Life — and by his realization that houses of worship are in a unique position to deliver on that promise.

Health clinics and hospitals may be scattered unevenly and inequitably around the world, but there is almost no town so isolated, no village so remote that it doesn’t have a religious building within it or nearby. This is a global infrastructure like none other, one that’s typically staffed by people for whom the highest goal is serving others and relieving suffering. Rick has convinced religious leaders of many faiths that their primary responsibility is to mend their people, so churches, temples, mosques and other religious centers could step into the breach, offering life-saving screenings and treatments in places that are often without the distribution networks for even the most basic medicines.

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But it’s not just in the poor or developing world that houses of worship can help. Infectious diseases, after all, are only one part of the global health care problem. Chronic disease — particularly those caused by overeating, smoking or other lifestyle factors — actually claim more lives worldwide. If congregations in Africa can deliver malaria cures, couldn’t those in the U.S. and the rest of the developed world similarly help people control the behaviors that are making them ill?

Pastor Rick called me two years ago with a way to help us find out. His epiphany came when he was baptizing members of his church and realized that it was becoming harder to perform the immersion ritual on so many people simply because the congregants themselves were getting so much bigger. This opened his eyes to the fact that he had let himself go — and grow — the same way. Many of the successful weight loss patients I treat in my practice and see on my show have similar “aha!” moments, so his experience was a great start. But Rick had much bigger plans. He would set out not just to lose his excess weight, but to offer a curriculum to his congregation so that they too could embark together on the road to good health. He wanted to know if I might help in developing the program, and I eagerly agreed to donate my time. My friends and colleagues Dr. Mark Hyman and Dr. Daniel Amen were on board already.

To develop the program — which Pastor Rick dubbed The Daniel Plan, after the biblical story of the Israeli boy Daniel who refused the rich foods offered by the conquering King Nebuchadnezzar and chose vegetables instead — we began the way I usually work when putting together a book, show or lecture. First, simplify concepts that teach the principles of some area of health — in this case weight loss. Next, add some humor and color and finally distill it down to easy-to-follow action steps. But in this case we had a powerful spiritual dimension as well. As we talked, Pastor Rick would keep bringing the conversation back to scripture, to the idea that we all have a moral obligation to pay attention to the only bodies we’ll ever have and simply to show up in our own lives. The doctors would talk about how smart, healthy snacks drive down the hunger hormone ghrelin, for example, and Rick would describe how getting fit can be a powerful way to praise God. At first, I saw myself as the medical academic and Pastor Rick as the spiritual counselor, but there was much more to it than that, which I was to learn as the Daniel Plan unfolded.

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Pastor Rick and I were born into different faiths, but that never came up in any of our discussions on delivering health care. As a transplant surgeon, I have taken a heart from a person of one religion and put it into the chest of a patient from another. I married a woman from a different faith from my own, and we have raised a family in a multicultural setting. I operate side by side with surgeons representing almost every religion on Earth, and the same diversity is found among the staff of my television show as we communicate to an audience in 112 countries and a multitude of religions. To me, health has always transcended what religious services you attend. Pastor Rick also promises to show us the ways they intersect.

One of the most powerful of those ways comes from the simple realization that we all deserve to be well. In my experience, the people who are the most successful at losing excess weight are the ones who believe they are worth the effort. Pastor Rick is helping to instill that sense of self-worth in all of his congregants, along with the idea that caring for the body is not vain but, in a way, divine — something that God wants you to do. His congregation has lost a total of 260,000 pounds so far, with church members helping one another in small groups and through peer counseling. What’s more, Rick has designed the plan so it excludes no one. The template we created can be delivered by other religious communities, which makes this plan scalable.

(MORE: Let’s Stop Being Passive About Fighting Obesity)

So does spirituality belong in healthcare? Personally, I believe the answer is yes and not just in terms of weight loss. My colleagues and I always offer patients pastoral care as they face the mortal realities of heart surgery. Most major hospitals include this component, whether it be interdenominational clergy, non-specific meditation or counseling services. Physicians are taught to keep our own religious biases separate from our clinical practice so patients who don’t believe in a higher power receive the same care all others do. This approach works. The example Pastor Rick has implemented at Saddleback demonstrates a clever integration of spirituality and health — a strategy that promotes wellness in a morally compelling way. As for me, I stand ready to work with any clerics, from any religion, at any time who ask me to help them help their flock.

(MORE: Read The Full Magazine Story, “Does God Want You To Be Thin?”)