A Crisis of Abundance
To heal a broken diet culture, look to the ancient discipline of fasting – not wonder drugs.
Have you heard of the new “miracle drug,” Ozempic®, that is helping thousands of Americans lose weight?
You should listen and draw your own conclusions, but after hearing both sides of the debate, I’m skeptical.
It’s not that I don’t believe in miracles. Rather, we’ve been promised so many quick fixes and miracle drugs that it seems unlikely we’ve suddenly found the Holy Grail. More importantly, a drug represents a medical solution to a deeper spiritual problem in the West. “Diet culture,” and the bevy of drugs and fads to fight our appetites, is paradoxically a result of a wealthy society that remains trapped in a scarcity mentality.
The spiritual response, in my view, is a return to the ancient discipline of fasting – but not as it has been presented in the popular media, as a “life hack” to lose weight. Instead, fasting must be renewed as an effort of the whole person: mind, body, and spirit. Although a regenerated metabolism is one effect of fasting, its true power extends far beyond any physiological mechanism.
Before signing up to pay what may be a lifetime annuity to the makers of Ozempic, we might examine its claims more closely and compare them to the alternative approach that has been around for millennia.
Join the Benedict Challenge – a six-week journey to regenerate the mind, body, and spirit through the ancient fasting discipline of eating one meal a day.
Better Living Through Chemistry? How Ozempic Works
Ozempic was originally developed to regulate insulin in type 2 diabetics, but is now racking up celebrity fans and testimonials on TikTok for its off-label weight loss potential. It mimics a naturally-occurring hormone, GLP-1, which is produced in the gut to signal that we are full. Taking the drug makes that fullness effect last longer, and reduces thoughts of food between meals. It’s basically a chemical version of the stomach-shrinking gastrointestinal bypass surgery, but because it doesn’t require an invasive procedure, people are signing up in droves.
People criticize Ozempic for promising results without demanding the hard work and discipline of lifestyle change, but spokespeople for the drug argue that obesity is a brain disease, inherited through genes. If being overweight is genetic, then we are absolved of taking responsibility for our health.
However, the sharp rise in obesity over the past 30 years suggests factors other than genetics are at play. 40% of American adults are now morbidly obese. To this, the “brain disease theory” answers that genes load the gun, but our environment pulls the trigger. When we look at our environment, there are many possible culprits – from processed foods and unnatural light to endocrine-disrupting chemicals.
The classic doctor’s advice to “eat less and exercise more” tends to ignore the environmental factors that stack the deck against weight loss. Thinking purely in terms of “calories-in-calories-out” transfers blame to the patient for his gluttony, laziness, or both. This explanation fails because it ignores the powerful hormonal signals that tell the brain how much to eat in order to maintain a certain “set point” of body fat. You can white knuckle your way through a restrictive diet for a time, but willpower is no match for these bodily cues long term. The virtue of Ozempic’s hormone-modification strategy is that it overrides the need for willpower by hacking our body’s reward system.
The complexity of the debate, coupled with the difficulty of losing weight once gained, is enough to frustrate anyone. Rather than futilely attempting yet another lifestyle change, it's tempting to say, "Just give me the drug already!”
But the stakes are too high to accept the drugmaker’s narrative uncritically.
Cracks in the Narrative
TikTok is full of dramatic testimonials, both positive and negative, from people who have taken Ozempic.
Some show off their impressive bikini-bod transformations or track progress by putting on their loose-fitting old clothing.
Others warn that they gained back double the weight after going off the drug (patients who take Ozempic for type 2 diabetes typically remain on the medication long-term since discontinuing can cause gastrointestinal issues).
The drug has now been approved for children as young as 12. That means that if Ozempic becomes the default treatment for obesity in this country, then one in three children are on a trajectory to be prescribed an irreversible course of a drug that extracts a high cost – paid directly to Big Pharma.
That’s not the only downside. The Ozempic website reports:
“The most common side effects of Ozempic® may include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach (abdominal) pain, and constipation.”
Finally, anecdotal reports suggest that altering the receptors in our gut can lead to more rapid aging, severe depression, and even suicidal thoughts.
These last side effects remind me of G. K. Chesterton’s wise observation that true despair stems not from being weary of suffering but from being weary of joy. Suppressing hunger may fix a symptom, but our body’s desires serve important purposes – not least of which is the joy of eating. Chesterton’s aphorism rings especially true in today's dopamine-overload era, where the constant availability of cheap food and entertainment makes us take them for granted. The more we indulge our famished cravings, the more starved we become, and the more we need external regulation to rein in our excessive desires.
Thus, diet culture is a direct result of our physical and spiritual malnourishment.
Thriving in an Age of Barbarism
The obesity epidemic is only symptomatic of a broader cultural crisis, through which the entire West has lost its moorings. A society that lets kids become overweight and then medicates them en masse to stop them from eating so much cannot be called civilized in any sense of the word. The crisis we are facing—of which obesity is merely one manifestation—afflicts not just the body, but also the mind and spirit.
But while a wonder drug seems implausible, I haven’t given up on a miracle.
Much of the “good news” in the Gospels consists of verified, eye-witness reports of miraculous healings – not only those performed by Jesus, but also by his disciples under the power of the Holy Spirit.
Where did the disciples get this power to cast out demons and perform healing miracles?
We get a clue from the word disciple, which implies discipline. The answer is stated plainly in the Gospel of Matthew:
“This kind can come forth by nothing, but by prayer and fasting.”
Fasting has been touted as a health cure, as well as a productivity and weight loss “hack,” but this framing falls short of its greatest power. Fasting is a regenerative discipline that partially restores what was lost in the fall. It is a core plank of a broader return to the simple asceticism that allowed the early church, and later the monasteries, to flourish.
In his book After Virtue, Alistair MacIntyre compares the present day to the period of the collapse of the Roman Empire, when Benedictine monasteries preserved the light of Christ’s teachings amid the chaos and violence of that period. They accomplished this through intense discipline and asceticism—through prayer and fasting. Long before it was a trendy protocol for “intermittent fasting,” eating one meal a day was the essence of St. Benedict’s fasting rule for monasteries. They practiced this during Lent, and on more than half the days of the year. Many attribute their lively, prayerful, and productive existence to the practice of rigorous fasting.
But today this practice has been largely abandoned—even in the monasteries.
After Virtue doesn’t mention fasting, but MacIntyre concludes his book with an exhortation to form small communities in which the moral life can flourish, and notes that the special challenge today lies in recognizing that “the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time.”
Indeed, they are in the lobbies of your elected representatives’ office, pushing pharmaceutical cures for spiritual illness.
Introducing the Benedict Challenge
Over the next six weeks, I will be providing weekly templates and resources to help set your own rule and progress gradually toward the goal of the Gold Standard Benedictine formula of One Meal a Day (during Lent). This challenge is meant to regenerate mind, body, and spirit, and break free from the scarcity mindset that is so prevalent in our crisis of abundance.
I do not suggest fasting as a panacea to cure obesity. Not everyone can fast, for various health reasons. My intention in relaunching a 40-day fasting challenge is twofold:
First, it is to help myself and others incrementally recapture the discipline that will enable us to fast with the same rigor as the ancient Church. As we will see, St. Benedict set a high bar, but not impossibly high. Scripture speaks ill of “the flesh” (sarx), which can be easy to mistake for a rejection of bodily health. While we must war against our natural appetites and inordinate desires to satisfy the flesh, I like to think of this task in terms of self-mastery—not self-negation. The incarnation teaches us that God took on the weakness of human flesh in order to show us how our bodies might be renewed and restored to new life, through Him. Fasting helps us to discipline the body, but more than that it teaches us the skill of fasting of the heart and makes us more like Christ. It makes us more sensitive and attuned to the world around us, to the suffering of others, and to the powers that have belonged to us all along.
Second, it is to embolden us to reclaim our anointing as Christ's torchbearers, who have given all authority through him under heaven and earth to bring the Gospel to the far corners of the earth. This authority enables us to heal sickness and free captives from their own spiritual enslavement. The Gospel has now spread around the world, but it is more important than ever to evangelize with passion in the post-Christian era. Outside of a handful of Pentecostals and professional exorcists, few Christians even attempt to perform miraculous healings. We fail to exercise this authority because we are embarrassed that we will be found powerless. We fail to fast because we are afraid to fail. And in truth, we are largely powerless. Our willpower alone is insufficient to maintain the rigorous fasting practiced by the ancients.
I am creating this challenge because I need it to stay accountable in the upcoming season of Lent. I must confess that a part of me recoils at the thought of fasting for the next 40 days. The spirit is willing but this flesh is weak!
Thankfully, there is a great treasure to be found in the deposit of ancient wisdom that gives us fasting as a vital tradition—whether that's Christianity, Islam, Taoism, Judaism, or Buddhism. However, my focus in this series will be on the Catholic tradition—as this is my own, and the one I believe possesses the fullness of truth. Unfortunately, much of the deposit of faith—while available and accessible to all who seek it out—is covered in centuries worth of dust. It must be brought out and made new, as well as explored in light of the emerging science of our hormones and physiology.
Regenerate mind, body, and spirit through the ancient discipline of fasting. Join the challenge:
Over time, I hope that this project will inspire some version of the small communities that MacIntyre envisioned as the new monasteries for the encroaching dark ages.
God bless you on this journey. I’ll see you on the road.