In chapter thirteen of the book of Numbers, God asks Moses to send twelve spies into Canaan to scout it out and bring back a report. As a dietitian I feel like one of my jobs is to spy out the nutritional landscape and report what I learn. Unfortunately, the current conditions can seem more like a desert wasteland than a land flowing with milk and honey.
The USDA tells us that half of all the foods we eat should be fruits and vegetables, but then only spends about .45% of agriculture subsidies on fruits and vegetables. Restaurants often give us portion sizes that far exceed our nutritional needs. The beverage industry mirrors the tobacco industry – marketing to low income populations, including children, despite evidence that links increased sugar-sweetened beverage intake to poor health outcomes. The cost to eat healthy is pricey, and only getting more expensive. And a new eating disorder related to a fixation on “pure” eating, or orthorexia, has emerged as a physical and mental health concern. Many days I feel like the ten spies who returned afraid and said, “we can’t do it, they are too strong, we are too weak.” There is a real temptation to be afraid or to not trust God in our current food and nutrition culture.
As a parent, I often find myself vacillating on these issues. On the one hand, I want my children to enjoy eating all foods without fear of how it may contribute to their health. On the other hand, I want them to understand that our bodies work best when we eat mostly fruits and vegetables and drink water. I also want them to care about things like how their food is grown and prepared, how animals are treated, and how food service workers are paid. Should my son spend his allowance on food from the gas station? Should a parent worry if her daughter insists on consuming a vegan diet? How often should we have dessert as a family? Do other parents worry this much about feeding their children or are my children doomed because their mother is a dietitian?
I compare the Standard American Diet (SAD) to Janice, Chandler Bing’s long-time on-off girlfriend on Friends. In Season 4, Episode 15, Chandler fakes a move to Yemen to get away from her. I wonder, should we all move to the Mediterranean? Or how about we pack our bags and resettle in one of the Blue Zones? While I fully support the Mediterranean diet and think the lifestyle habits of the world’s healthiest and longest living people offer us evidence-based guidance, it doesn’t reduce the anxiety I have about feeding and raising healthy eaters in in the Southeastern US.
In chapter fourteen, two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, give us a different report from the other ten spies, “The land, which we passed through to spy it out, is an exceedingly good land. If the Lord delights in us, he will bring us into this land and give it to us, a land that flows with milk and honey. Only do not rebel against the Lord. And do not fear the people of the land, for they are bread for us. Their protection is removed from them, and the Lord is with us; do not fear them” (vs. 8-9). Joshua and Caleb confirm God’s goodness and His presence for the people of Israel.
Do you know someone like Joshua and Caleb today? Examples in my life include Christian farmers and restaurant owners in our community and older adults in our church. There are two farms owned and operated by Christians within 100 miles of our home that remind me the Lord has given us exceedingly good land. They seek to be obedient to God’s design for animal, soil, and water welfare. A childhood friend from my sixth-grade confirmation class now owns and operates several restaurants alongside her husband. I am often encouraged by her hospitality within the communities where their restaurants are established, as well as her treatment of her employees. Two older couples from my church were guests in a class I teach for undergraduate dietetic students, and graciously talked about how their lifestyles over seven and eight decades compared to the nine habits of the Blue Zone residents.
Like Joshua and Caleb, these friends are not afraid of the culture God has called them to live in. When these brothers and sisters in Christ are caring for their bodies, communities, land, water, and animals through their personal, business, and farming practices, I am reminded of Jesus’ words in the gospel of Matthew, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body” (6:25). My eating as a Christian is not aimed towards a particular body size, absence of nutrition-related chronic disease, or zero food waste; rather, I live and eat to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.
The people of Israel grumbled and complained. As a result of listening to the ten spies who did not point them towards trusting in God’s goodness, their disobedience led an entire generation to wander in the wilderness, missing out on living in the good land God had for them. Joshua and Caleb co-labored with Moses to bring the people of God the good news about the land God had prepared for them, a shadow and foretaste of the good news centered on Jesus.
Today, Jesus invites us to co-labor with him to bring the young people in our lives the good news about the eternal kingdom of God, where “the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food,” redeeming our griefs and sins, even those related to food (Is. 25:6). We can encourage them to taste and see that the Lord is good now by trusting in the Lord’s provision and care for their bodies and through creation and community care. Simple acts of visiting a local farm, supporting a local restaurant, or engaging older adults from our churches in food conversations can be ingredients that the Lord uses in His recipe for healthy eating in our SAD culture.
Buettner, D. (2012). The blue zones: 9 lessons for living longer from the people who’ve lived the longest. National Geographic Books.
Guthrie, N., & Duncan, L. (Hosts). (2017, Jan 26). Numbers Pt 2 [Audio podcast episode]. In Help me teach the Bible. The Gospel Coalition. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/podcasts/help-me-teach-the-bible/ligon-duncan-on-numbers-pt-2/.