Is bread a blessing, or the bane of the modern American diet? Creators of low-carbohydrate eating plans like the Whole30 argue that breads and their high carb-cousins (pasta, rice and especially sugar) are the biggest culinary culprits of obesity, diabetes, and other chronic health conditions. But a recent article in Smithsonian magazine reports new research that suggests we were literally made to crave carbohydrates. For followers of Jesus, that finding shouldn’t raise any eyebrows. After all, Jesus identifies His very life with bread. We remember that truth each time we take communion, that He is the Bread of Life, broken for us. If bread is really all that bad, why didn’t Jesus pick something more healthy to represent Himself-like kale?
Those are some of the questions I asked myself recently as I began researching different eating plans in the wake of my husband’s disappointing medical checkup. The numbers my husband notes to track his Type2 diabetes had been moving steadily in the wrong direction. So had the numbers on my bathroom scale. It would be easy to write this all off as sweetly symbolic of our one flesh state – a slow, collective surrender to middle age. But it wouldn’t have been accurate.
The first six months of 2016 had been a season of significant trial for my husband and me. Job instability, sudden family health crises, other longterm trials, plus the everyday emotional exhaustion that comes from parenting a house of preteen women, had sapped the reservoirs of our circumstantial joy bone dry. Eating out (or ordering in) after a stressful day at work, or late night snacking in peace and quiet after the kids were finally (finally) in bed, had become my coping mechanism for stress and anxiety. In a toxic tradition going all the way back to Eve, I was infusing food, and wine, with a level of meaning and fulfillment they were never created to give, and enticing my husband to do the same. We were bearing in our bodies the due penalty of our errors, and our collective health (both spiritual and physical) was suffering. To paraphrase John Owen – we needed to kill our nutritional sins, or they would, eventually, be killing us.
Of all the eating plans I’d researched, the Whole30 was the one that seemed to hit all of our nutritional and behavioral issues the hardest. People following the Whole30 abstain from all food and beverages containing any ingredients associated currently associated with overeating and poor health. All foods containing added sugars (both real and artificial), bread, rice and other grains, dairy, soy, legumes, and all types of alcohol, are forbidden. “Frankenfoods” made to recreate the taste and texture of forbidden foods (e.g. muffins made from almond flour, coconut milk ice cream, nutrition bars, etc.) are also out. What is permitted are so-called “whole” foods – proteins, animal and vegetable fats, fruits, and all the vegetables you’d like. This method of eating is designed to help two, often overlapping, groups of people. The first category is people struggling with chronic inflammatory or digestive problems, seeing to understand which foods might be exacerbating their condition. The second is people like me who have been drawn into a cycle of unhealthy eating to mitigate negative emotions, or amplify positive ones.
The Whole30’s instructions are written in the love language of the Pharisees, with lengthy lists of restrictions and permissions, and a lot of ““suck it up and have some self-control it’s just a month you weakling” hyperbole. For people trying to isolate food sensitivities, this counsel is scientifically sound; the presence of even the smallest morsel of an irritant can trigger problematic symptoms for hours or days. For those whose battles are more about self-control, trading the popular sentiment of “everything in moderation” for “not even a hint” keeps people from the small slips that lead to larger ones, and the eventual return to the same bad habits.
On a purely scientific level, the Whole30 read like a healthful and helpful way to eat. But how to reconcile such a seemingly anti-bread approach to eating with pro-bread Jesus? Another report published several months ago in the Wall Street Journal offered an intriguing answer.
In an article titled “Can you Carbo-Load Your Way to Good Health”, Elizabeth Dunn describes how artisan bakers are eschewing the commercial grade flours that are mechanically milled to make bread that rises faster and lasts longer on store shelves. Instead they use flour made from freshly milled, locally sourced wheats and grains. Breads and other baked goods made this way differ in taste in the same way that coffee made from freshly ground beans differs in taste from the pale, shadow-of-death beverage that is freeze-dried instant crystals.
The difference in nutritional quality is even more significant. Bread made from commoditized flour, even bread labeled as 100% Whole Wheat or enriched, is devoid of the vitamins and minerals contained in the components stripped from wheat during processing. But bread made from flour that has been freshly milled, permitted to rise for several days, contains more fiber, more vitamins, and less gluten (a protein that has a disease rap sheet all its own). In the article, a baker named Adam Leonti reports that he lost 15 pounds by eating bread baked this way. “You have all these enzymes that are alive and volatile…those are the things your body is searching for to make digestion happen, to make nutrition happen.” Leonti’s testimony is anecdotal, and Dunn notes that full nutritional data on milled wheat is minimal. But reports like this suggest that the average American’s problem is not that eating bread is so bad; it’s the bad bread that we’re eating.
We need bread that’s better.
Considering this possibility sent my mind to Jesus’ words to his disciples in John 6, after the crowds He’d miraculously fed were determined to turn Him into their permanent meal ticket. The root cause of their sin, and mine, was the same – a determination to find life and sustenance from the gifts God gives, instead of the gift who is God in Jesus Christ. We are all sick and weak from our striving after the wrong kind of bread. Only when we orient our appetites and desires around the One who feeds our souls will we be truly satisfied, and whole.
Whether intentionally or not, the Whole30 plan patently acknowledges this by way of one remarkable exception buried deep in the legalistic list of “thou shalt nots”. While bread and wine are entirely verboten on the Whole30, for both elimination and emotional reasons, both of them are permitted in the context of weekly communion. “God > Whole30” the diet plan’s founders state unequivocally. “We would never ask you to compromise your faith for our rules.”
With that concession, the Whole30 way of eating seemed to offer a way for m to literally honor God with my body – to confess with my mouth that Jesus was Lord of it and all my hungers, and that He was my only true source of joy and comfort. For my husband, the benefits would be much more straightforward- a likely reduction in his glucose levels so he could avoid escalating medication methods and longterm circulation damage.
Over the weekend of August 14, I cleansed the kitchen cupboards of sources of hidden sugars with the zeal of a Jewish housewife ridding her house of yeast before Passover. My daughter lent a compassionate hand, cleaning and dividing the fridge into the requisite “Whole30 Clean/Unclean” sections. On Monday the 15th, with memories of the previous night’s last commemorative chocolate chip cookie fresh in my mind, our Whole 30 journey began.
Like any new convert, the first few days were filled with zeal and “hey, this isn’t too bad!” moments of (mostly) unforced enthusiasm. But the days dragged like weeks, and hours dragged like days. Temptations and mental triggers abounded – a stressful day transporting emotionally overwrought daughters to school and from sports, my husband’s discouragement over slow progress at his new job, brownies discovered at the bottom of the freezer, joking internet memes about when it would finally be “wine thirty”. In the past, self-justifying “All things are lawful for me” thoughts would begin the slow fade to black of my resolve. But this time – “But I will not be mastered by anything. Jesus is better” thoughts replaced them.
Because I had started the program on a Monday, Sunday signalled the end of each full week. Never was I so glad that our church celebrated communion every week. With my head full of the week’s trials and Holy Spirit-empowered victories over a thousand moments of temptation, the walk to the table holding the better bread and wine of communion was a true victory march. Jesus had been better every time. He was better. And He would be better in the week to come.
And He was. Today marked the last day of the plan.
For 30 days, my husband and I exchanged lesser foods for greater food, and our bodies and soul were both strengthened by it. The physical changes we experienced were significant, although I’m reluctant to reduce the outcome of my commitment to just lower numbers on a scale or a glucometer. Far be it from me that I tempt anyone to see Jesus or His Word as a means to bodily salvation, just like the Jews of His day did.
But if you have been wrestling with deep hungers in your soul, and you find yourself trying to fill it with things you know will never satisfy, a radical setting aside of those things for a season, and replacing them with the fullness of Christ, will feed your soul in a way those lesser things never will.