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YOUR DIET // Feeding the soul, not the body

Food and temptation have been linked since the apple of Genesis.

Debby Yabczanka's tempting food was fudge, until a few months ago. She credits a special power for the 30 pounds she has lost since January.

God.

"God cares about every detail in my life," said Yabczanka, a 41-year-old artist.

Frustrated by a confusing array of dieting information, more men and women are turning to a very old book in their efforts to lose weight. Since the early '80s, Bible-based weight loss programs have been lending a spiritual dimension to dieting.

"It's easy not to think of eating as a sin," Yabczanka told the Christian weight loss class she is leading through her church, Calvary Chapel in St. Petersburg. "But when I make food an idol, it is."

Yabczanka said she surprised herself several months ago when her son suggested they purchase some fudge at The Pier in St. Petersburg. "I actually said "eeuw,' " she said.

The growth of Bible-based weight loss programs _ estimated to be in 15,000 churches _ surprises even those closely involved with the organizations.

"It's growing so fast people are comparing it to Promise Keepers," said Diana Johnson, referring to the spiritual movement that seeks to help Christian men become better husbands and fathers.

Johnson is with the Weigh Down Workshop, a national Christian weight-loss program based in Cookeville, Tenn. The Weigh Down Workshop, which Calvary Chapel is using, is offered in 5,000 churches, up from 2,000 churches last year.

First Place, another Christian weight-loss program, started 15 years ago with 12 people meeting at Houston's First Baptist Church. Today, 10,000 churches offer the program, including some in the Tampa Bay area. Much of that growth has taken place in the last five years.

Of the two, the Weigh Down Workshop is the more radical. Although First Place operates similarly to a mainstream weight-loss group, with calorie guidelines and exchanges in addition to Bible study and fellowship, Weigh Down participants do not diet in the traditional sense. They don't count calories and no foods are off limits.

"We focus inwardly," Johnson said. "People are tired of dieting. They're tired of skinless chicken. God wants us to satisfy our inner hunger through a relationship with him."

Started in 1986 by Gwen Shamblin, a registered dietitian, Weigh Down Workshops teach that food is often used to feed spiritual and emotional cravings rather than actual physiological hunger.

Replace a pan of brownies with nourishment for the soul and cravings can be controlled and redirected, according to the workshops.

"We believe we can develop a passion for God that is greater than all of the passions in life," Johnson said.

The workshop teaches eating "the way God intended," Johnson said. That means eating the way a baby does _ only when there is "true stomach hunger" and then only to the point of satisfaction.

This requires listening to internal cues that signal when the stomach is full _ something many nutritionists say is nearly impossible for many people to do.

Program adherents agree the practice is difficult. But it is not impossible, they say.

Linking weight loss with spirituality has helped Nancy Dura of St. Petersburg lose 40 pounds in a year. She hesitated at first to try the Weigh Down program.

"I was frustrated," she said. "If you've tried everything and you're still gaining weight, God is trying to tell you something."

Dura said the program has taught her that food was too important in her life.

"I'd eat when I was happy, when I was sad," she said. "If I wanted to celebrate, we'd go out to eat. It really did take the place of God in my life."

With the Weigh Down Workshop, Dura said, she can still eat pizza and ice cream in the break room at work, despite surprised looks from her co-workers. But now Dura said she eats only when she's hungry and only until she's full.

"I'll confess, I still want to go to the food. But now I stop and go to God, or I write in my journal and pray.

"When I find my hand on the fridge, he's the one who says "What are you doing? You're not hungry.' "

Dura's success prompted her daughter, Jennifer Lamb, to try Weigh Down.

"I'd eat breakfast at 5:30 a.m," said Lamb, 21, and recently married. "I'd have an early snack around 9. Then I'd eat a whole lunch. I'd have dinner with my husband and if we went out later I bought ice cream."

But the Weigh Down Workshop has helped her change her relationship with food, she said. In the process, her body is changing as well.

Lamb doesn't weigh herself ("I don't want to become a slave to the scale," she said), but she said her clothes feel different.

"This is about more than food, though," she said. "I realize I need to become closer to God. I need to be obedient to him. Obedience is something that's really hard for me."

Obedience means internalizing the belief that overindulgence is wrong, Weigh Down Workshop participants believe.

"When I first started and I didn't stop when I'd had enough, I'd get sick," said Sharon Reed, who has gone down two pant sizes since starting the program. "I wasn't being obedient to him.

"God has a perfect place for us, a perfect size, and it's not being overweight," she said.

Gluttony, of course, is considered a sin, but what about vanity? Does God care if you are thin or fat?

"Christ lives inside you," Johnson said. "He wants you to take care of yourself."

Johnson said diets cannot change people on the inside, but the Weigh Down program can free up time and energy formerly spent obsessing about weight.

The workshop uses as an analogy the Israelites coming out of slavery: The program can release people from the bondage of food and dieting.

Nancy Ammiano, who lost 55 pounds taking part in a Weigh Down Workshop at her church in New Port Richey, is so excited by the program she has paid for a billboard on the north side of State Road 54 at the entrance to the West Pasco Industrial Park near Odessa..

The billboard, which reads "Jesus set me free and I lost 55 pounds," will be up for six months "to give God glory," she said. The billboard also includes the Weigh Down Workshop's phone number.

"It's really brought me emotional and spiritual freedom," said Ammiano, who said she tried 20 weight loss programs before finding the Weigh Down Workshop.

"It used to be constant, unbelievable turmoil," she said. "It was like Satan had a hold of me and Jesus set me free."

The Weigh Down Workshop can be reached at (800) 844-5208. For information about First Place, call (800) 727-5223.

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