Featured Columns

Written by Steven Burns
From his column To Your Health

Sam really enjoys church potlucks. He goes back through the line, frequently twice, never failing to make it to the dessert table. Sam has a few extra pounds. Truth be told, he’s about 60 pounds overweight, nearly qualifying as “morbidly obese.” He has had at least one coronary artery stent and takes medications for diabetes and high blood pressure.

You likely have a “Sam” or two in your congregation. There’s been at least one in every church I’ve attended, and I’ve treated many just like him in my practice. Years ago, I made a rule that I would do my best not to notice what my patients eat at potlucks. I’m pretty good at it.

I don’t know about your church, but we have some great cooks in ours. They are very generous with their time, skills, and quantities of food. No one could possibly go hungry at our church dinners. And therein lies the problem.

Serious Health Problem

91 million Americans live with heart disease for which the annual costs of medical care and lost productivity total more than $316 billion.

In the United States, cardiovascular illness (coronary heart disease and stroke) causes about 800,000 deaths per year—about one of every three deaths. Someone dies of heart disease in this nation every 40 seconds. Worldwide, the numbers aren’t much different, with 31% of deaths caused by cardiovascular disease. The disease claims more lives than all forms of cancer and lung disease combined. In addition, about 91 million Americans live with heart disease for which the annual costs of medical care and lost productivity total more than $316 billion.

Risk factors for heart disease and stroke include tobacco use, alcohol abuse, physical inactivity, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity.

Tobacco use has been decreasing in the U.S., but increasing globally. Smoking accounts annually for about 6.3 million deaths worldwide. Alcohol has been touted by its producers as being beneficial for the heart, but there is no good evidence to support the claim. A recent article in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology showed that alcohol abuse causes an increase in heart attacks, atrial fibrillation, and congestive heart failure. The American College of Cardiology states that alcohol should not be prescribed for health enhancement to non-drinking individuals. As Saint Augustine put it, “complete abstinence is easier than perfect moderation.” Sounds like our Nazarene position.

Exercise and Nutrition

A lack of regular physical activity also contributes to heart disease. Daily I hear, “I’m going to start exercising as soon as it cools down (or heats up, or my work changes, or our visitors leave, etc.).” This means the person thinks exercise is a good idea in the abstract, but has no intention of trying it. I gently encourage them to take a walk.

Poor nutrition also adds to risk, mostly by increasing the inflammation in a person’s arteries. Several eating plans, such as the DASH diet, have been proven to decrease cardiovascular risk. Adding fruits and vegetables to your diet (remember, apple pie does not qualify as a fruit) helps reduce risk, and avoiding sugar and starch are also critical steps in doing so. Cutting carbs also helps with dropping weight, as obesity is also a risk factor for heart disease.

What to Do?

Which brings us back to potluck dinners. There are ways to reduce the risk to yourself and others of overeating at potlucks, buffets, and even family dinners. First is to realize that gluttony is not a Christian attribute: “As I have told you many times and now say with deep sadness, many people live as enemies of the cross. Their lives end with destruction. Their god is their stomach, and they take pride in their disgrace because their thoughts focus on earthly things” (Phil. 3:18-19); and “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against things like this” (Gal. 5:22-23). While gluttony may not be listed as a sin by name, self-control is a fruit of the Spirit, and if leaving a potluck so stuffed you can barely fasten your seat belt isn’t gluttony, then I don’t know what is.

So, for those planning church meals, use smaller plates. If you’re a cook, develop healthier recipes for the items you prepare and encourage other church chefs to do the same. You might also consider packaging your luscious dishes as smaller individual servings, which will not only help people’s waistlines, but will speed up the serving line. For the dessert table, bring angel food rather than devil’s food cakes, and go easy on the frosting. Also, provide fresh fruit options for those who want something sweet after the main dish.

Heart disease is a serious matter. Please don’t take it lightly. I encourage each of you to talk with your doctor about ways you can personally reduce your own risk—and then take his or her advice.

Dr. Steven Burns is board-certified in family medicine and has been in practice for more than 30 years.

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