by Julie Z. Lee
Carol Moses told herself to stop looking in the mirror-modesty was a virtue. She struggled to not focus on clothing-vanity was a sin. She remembered to not think about herself and to think of others-humility was the key to being a good person.
In the meantime, Moses's weight continued to creep up, leveling off at 220 pounds. On her petite 5'4" frame, it was a lot of excess baggage to be carrying around. Denial-even with the best intentions-was chock-full of calories.
"I had given up on diets. They didn't work," she says. "So I told myself, 'Forget it. Just live in the present, and at least you'll be cheerful to be around. Don't be consumed with people who are always talking about one diet or another.' It was just so ho-hum boring to me. I realized that I needed to be doing something, and I didn't want to."
Then Moses's sister, who had also been struggling with weight, came to visit. She looked noticeably thinner. Despite her cynicism, Moses couldn't help but ask what her sister was doing. Her sister told her about Prism, a program of tracking calories with a ban on refined flour and sugar.
"I thought, That's all? You eat everything else? I can't believe it's that simple," says Moses. Convinced by how great her sister looked, Moses joined the program a couple weeks later and lost 80 pounds.
In the whirlwind of diet plans circling popular culture today, it's easy to dismiss Prism as another fad diet with an expiration date. In fact, some experts might say that Prism's foundation of calorie counting (a maximum of 1,200-1,500 calories a day in phase 1) already dates this program as behind the times. According to the May 2003 Loma Linda University Nutrition and Health Letter, "current approaches to weight loss shy away from any discussion of calories."
Yet Prism's curriculum is not based on calorie mathematics alone. It also calls for health education with an option to join a support group or start one if none exists in the area. And support groups do not have to be monitored by paid personnel. Instead, anyone with an interest in the program can start a group (there is a reasonable fee involved). This reliance on grassroots enthusiasm has sparked numerous groups all across the country.
Arlene Badzik has been leading weekly Prism meetings in her hometown of Placerville, California, for the past three years. Every Monday night Badzik welcomes a handful of women (and the occasional male) to a classroom she borrows from her church.
On one particular evening seven women-most of them slender-stroll in one by one. They place their food journals on an empty chair, as is routine. Food journals are a double-sided sheet of paper with charts to itemize every meal's calories. The purpose is to not only control intake but to also teach the participants how to think before eating. Small, seemingly inconsequential bites of food during the day can quickly add up to big numbers in calories.
Later in the week Badzik will review each journal to offer encouragement and serve as an accountability partner. There are no weigh-in procedures during the six-week phases; in fact, scales are forbidden. Weight is taken only at the start and at the end of each phase.
When it's time for the meeting to begin, Badzik invites the attendees to share challenges or successes they had during the week. Afterward, she starts a video that corresponds to the week's lessons.
This evening the topic is "Carbohydrates: Friend or Foe." With the anti-carbohydrate revolution taking over America's food culture, the title feels like a cliché. Yet the lecture is fresh and informative. Instead of relying solely on the topic of weight loss, the video emphasizes health and the science of food.
The impact of the weekly videos is apparent in the meeting discussions. The women, some of whom have been on the program for more than a year, don't discuss cravings for sugary indulgences. Instead, they talk about the benefits of flaxseed and Omega-3s. A woman reports that her recent visit to the dentist showed a drastic improvement in her gum health after having been on this program. Another woman shares that at a physical two weeks ago, her cholesterol had gone down more than 30 points.
Someone asks one of the newer women how she is doing with the required eight glasses of water a day.
"Better; I'm going to the bathroom a lot more!" she responds.
"It's really important to come to these meetings consistently," say Badzik, who lost 20 pounds and has kept it off for the past three years. "I tell them, 'Some of you who have had a weight problem all your life will probably need to be in a support group for the rest of your life for the accountability and encouragement. Because it's always been a struggle. So it's an addiction. It's like Alcoholics Anonymous. Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic.' "
Also like AA, Prism acknowledges the need for a higher power. Prism is a Christian-oriented program. All videos and reading materials are infused with Scripture and reminders to depend on God for willpower and strength. Participants are not required to believe in Jesus Christ, but the program is unapologetically Christian.
The faith aspect is important because Prism requires participants to search beyond the effects of food in order to discover their emotional reasons for overeating, using daily personal evaluations that are provided with the program workbook.
"We must learn to rely on God, giving Him our weight or our problems or whatever is bogging us down and asking Him to be in control of our lives. Then we can rely on His strength to make good choices," says Badzik, who prays for each member of her group. "We have to do that on a daily basis."
Personal evaluation questions are not limited to topics concerning food and weight. In later phases of the program, participants are asked about the way they respond to life, attitudes about self, and trust. The end goal, the program states, is to become "the person you were created to be" or the "true you."
For Moses, dropping 80 pounds was a triumph, but it pales in comparison to the spiritual and personal lessons she's gained. "The lessons took me beyond the physical needs and started addressing where I was emotionally starving," says Moses.
She realized that her attachment to food and her refusal to acknowledge her weight gain had roots deeper than she could have ever imagined. "I found that when I was disappointed or sad or angry or irritated, attributes that a Christian should not have, I denied those feelings. So in secret I would eat the M&Ms, the donuts, or the chips. That was my way of medicating instead of addressing those emotions that I felt I shouldn't be experiencing," says Moses, who is a Seventh-day Adventist. "And it's only been since I got into Prism that I've started coming to terms with things and can acknowledge them."
Understanding the basis of her compulsive eating is even more important now; Moses has gained much of her weight back. Four years ago Moses was at the top of her game. She was a support group leader and a source of inspiration for many women who joined her meetings. But slowly, as life threw her curveballs, the weight returned.
"It's very hard to eat crow," says Moses.
But discouragement has led to a resurrection of the same principles she learned in Prism. She's watching calories, eating healthfully, and planning her meals ahead of time. More than ever, Moses is depending on God.
"I'm at a stage now where the willpower is wearing off; it's time for self control. Instead of gritting my teeth and forcing myself to 'just say no,' my job is to stay connected with God. I need to keep my focus on Jesus Christ. He is the mighty one. He is the powerful one. He is the awesome one," says Moses. "Number one is to acknowledge the problem. Stop denying it. Then number two is to tap into Jesus Christ, because you can't do it alone for lasting success."
It is a component that is missing among the thousands of get-thin-quick schemes. Although public health organizations may recognize compulsive eating as a serious affliction, most of the general population does not. According to the American Obesity Association, approximately 127 million adults are overweight. Sixty million are considered obese. Just like any addiction, food has a strong hold over people. Without a program that offers spiritual and emotional support as an alternative to food, is it truly possible to conquer the battle of the bulge?
Angie, one of the women who meets in Badzik's group, believes that a true transformation toward a healthy, thinner lifestyle can only be achieved through God.
"You can't do this program unless you believe in a higher power. We believe that our Lord and Creator is helping us. It's through His power that we're able to do this," says Angie, who has been on Prism for nine months and has lost 30 pounds. "We're weak. But He's making us strong."
Julie Z. Lee is X at Maranatha Volunteers International in Sacramento, California.