10/21/2011 09:23 am ET Updated Dec 21, 2011

Holy Unhealthy Eating! How to Stop Churches From Sending People to Heaven Early

The Cleveland Clinic, a hospital known for its "innovative technology" in the field of medicine, has one of the world's busiest McDonalds, per square foot, on its premises. Does this strike you as an obvious conflict of interest? Last year I went to an appointment with my wife to see her endocrinologist. He had bowls of candy and cookies in the waiting room. So let me get this right. Sick people go to the doctor, or a well known medical clinic, where they can freely snack on food that makes them sicker. Unbelievable! Over the last decade as my work has focused more on the connection between physical and emotional health, I have realized that many schools, businesses, hospitals and churches could do a much better job of helping people they serve.

In August of 2010 I went to a church near my home with my family and told my wife I would save us seats while she took our daughter to children's church. As I walked toward the sanctuary I passed hundreds of hundreds of donuts for sale for charity; then walked by bacon and sausage cooking on the grill and started to feel really irritated; then passed hundreds of hot dogs being prepared for after church; as I found a seat the minister was talking about the ice cream festival they had the night before.

I was so frustrated that when my wife found me in church I was typing on my phone, which she absolutely hates and she gave me that look that only your wife can give you that said, "Why are you on that thing in church!?" Then I showed her what I was writing:

"Go to church .... get donuts ... bacon ... sausage ... hot dogs ... ice cream.
They have no idea they are sending people to heaven EARLY!"

Nearly everywhere we turn there is evidence that our society, including our public schools, churches and doctor's waiting rooms, however well-meaning, are hurting us with the food they offer. There has to be a better way. Churches, businesses, schools, hospitals, all of our social institutions have the potential to be powerful positive influences on our health and connect us with the kind of support network that leads to success. We have to do more to make that happen.

For me, church was the obvious place to start. During that service I prayed that God would use me to help change places of worship. The House of God, no matter what religion, should not be a place that fosters illness.

Two weeks later Pastor Steve Komanapali from Saddleback Church called me. Saddleback is one of the largest churches in America with about 30,000 members and ten campuses across Southern California. Pastor Steve is Rick Warren's personal assistant. Pastor Warren is the senior pastor at Saddleback, author of "The Purpose Driven Life" which has now sold over 35 million copies worldwide. Pastor Warren was on the cover of Time Magazine with the caption, "America's most powerful religious leader takes on the world." His positive influence has crossed denominational and political boundaries.

Steve asked if I would talk to Pastor Warren about a new initiative at Saddleback Church called "Decade of Destiny." The staff was putting together a ten year plan to get the church healthy physically, emotionally, cognitively, financially, vocationally and relationally. Would I be willing to help with the initiative to help the people at Saddleback have a better brain and a better body? I was amazed at how quickly my prayer of two weeks earlier was being answered. Steve set up a time for me to talk with Rick.

I found Pastor Warren to be warm and friendly. He laughed easily. But he had a serious goal: to help his parishioners (including himself) get healthier on every level. If it worked at Saddleback, he hoped he could export the plan to churches around the world (Saddleback is connected to 400,000 pastors and churches around the globe). In order to increase the health of his congregation, Pastor Warren put together a team of experts. He had already recruited noted physicians and bestselling authors Mehmet Oz (heart surgeon) and Mark Hyman (functional medicine specialist). He hoped I would provide guidance on brain health.

During our conversation Pastor Warren asked, "Is there anything I can do for you to thank you for helping us?" I was just getting ready to shoot my public television special "The Amen Solution: The Brain Healthy Secrets to Being Thinner, Smarter and Happier" and asked if he might be able to gather me an audience for a practice run. "No problem," he said and we set a date for the following week. Pastor Warren asked if he could interview me after I completed the rehearsal and play it at the kick-off of the health portion of the Decade of Destiny program. I readily agreed.

On the day of the taping I got to meet Pastor Steve in person outside the media center. Of East Indian heritage, his skin was the warm color of a strong latte. His dark eyes were kind and his laugh easy. I liked him immediately. He was 5'8" and about 300 pounds, however, and I hoped my work would help him get healthy. The food in the pastor's church's green room was awful. There were candy bars, sodas, muffins, and pastries. I ask Steve if they were trying to kill the pastors by the awful food they were serving. He laughed and said, "If you think this is bad, I run a Saturday morning men's Bible study group and give the guys barbecued ribs as a reward for learning Bible verses." I was beginning to understand why God answered my prayer. With the current mentality of enticing or rewarding its parishioners with junk food, it was like one giant coronary just waiting to happen. I could also see that changing this mentality was NOT going to be easy.

The auditorium was a great place to practice my new show and the audience loved the program. Afterwards I met Pastor Warren, who was a very large man, both in stature and weight. I was in the middle of our NFL study so I was used to standing next to people who were 6'4" and 300 pounds, but Rick did not look healthy or vibrant. He looked tired and sick.

When we sat down for the interview, Rick started by asking me about the "Dinosaur Syndrome," which I had talked about in the new show. I'd shown a slide that said:

Dinosaur Syndrome
Big Body. Little Brain. Become Extinct.

"That really got my attention," Rick said. "Can you explain that some more?"

"Sure," I replied, "The Dinosaur Syndrome is a term I coined after reading Dr. Cyrus Raji's research from the University of Pittsburgh that reported as your weight goes up the actual physical size of the brain goes down. The researchers found that when subjects had a BMI between 25 and 30, considered overweight, they had four percent less brain volume and their brains looked eight years older than healthy people. When subjects were obese with a BMI over 30, they had eight percent less brain volume and their brains looked sixteen years older than healthy people. In a follow up study from my research group at the Amen Clinics published in the "Nature Journal Obesity" we found that as a person's weight went up, the function in the prefrontal cortex, the most human, thoughtful part of the brain, went down."

"Is that why my sermons are getting longer?" Rick joked. The audience chuckled, then we moved on to the topic of motivation.

"What moves you?" I asked Rick. "Why are you doing this new initiative?"

His answer was precise. "I want the next ten years to be the best ten years both for myself and for the church to get healthy."

We then talked about his diet. He volunteered, "I am not hungry until two in the afternoon. I could fast until noon every day of the week, but then my appetite kicks in and I eat large quantities of food until late in the night."

"You have to stop that eating pattern," I said, "Study after study has shown that people eat breakfast are more likely to lose weight and keep it off. By eating regularly you keep your blood sugar more stable throughout the day. Stable blood sugar wards off cravings. Keeping blood sugar stable doesn't just help weight loss; it also helps your focus, memory and decision making skills."

The interview was fun and pleasant to that point. But then it seemed to take a strange turn. Rick asked me to give the audience some tips about brain health.

I said, "It's not magic, it's simple mathematics. If you want to be healthy you cannot eat too many calories and the calories you choose need to be high quality. Otherwise your body and brain become bankrupt. I sent you an email a while back saying if you really wanted to get the church healthy you could start by putting the calories and nutritional content on the food you serve at Saddleback. When I didn't hear back from you I figured you weren't too keen on that idea."

This is where Rick seemed to become irritated with me. "I read that email and thought, 'Oh, yeah, that's a great idea ... I am going to become the health nut and the Gestapo for food at Saddleback.' "

I replied, "This would be one of the most loving things you can do for your church. But you have to buy into the concept, on a real emotional level, that if you overeat you are not being a good steward of your body. I can see we need to do a little therapy around this topic."

"But we built this church on donuts!" he replied.

Now, I was horrified. This helped to explain new research from Northwestern University that reported people who frequently attend religious services are significantly more likely to become obese by the time they reach middle age. The traditions of pot lucks, ice cream socials, pancake breakfasts, spaghetti dinners and donuts to get people to stay at church longer are clearly not good for the brain, body or soul. When your brain is sick, your soul is not at its best. We've got to get creative with alternative social activities and healthier food in our churches.

I left the interview feeling unsettled. Rick was asking for help, but seemed resistant to it at the same time, the same way many addicts I have treated react when confronted with the truth. "It is a process," I told myself. "Be patient."

The Daniel Plan to Change the Health of the World through Churches

Over the next three months the staff and the other doctors and I developed The Daniel Plan, named after the prophet in the Old Testament who refused to eat the king's bad food. In the first chapter of the book of Daniel (Daniel 1:3-16), Daniel and his three enslaved friends, Shadrach, Meshach and of Abednego, along with other young men, were commanded to eat from the King's kitchen of rich foods and wine. Daniel and his friends were determined not to defile themselves by eating the rich food and drinking the wine. Daniel asked the chief of staff, Melzar, for permission not to consume these unacceptable foods. But Melzar implored Daniel to do as he was told, so that he, Melzar, would not be beheaded for going against the King's orders because Daniel and his friends looked malnourished.

Daniel then gave Melzar this challenge, "Please test us for 10 days on a diet of vegetables and water. At the end of 10 days, see how we look compared to the other young men who are eating from the King's food. Then make your decision in the light of what you see.
Melzar agreed to Daniel's challenge and tested them for 10 days. At the end of 10 days, Daniel and his three friends looked healthier and better nourished than the young men who were eating the food assigned by the King. So after that Melzar fed them only vegetables instead of the food and wine provided for the others. God gave these four men an unusual aptitude for understanding every aspect of literature and wisdom." Daniel and his friends looked better and were smarter than the others.

The Daniel Plan is a 52-week small group program to get the church healthy. Small groups are the secret sauce of Saddleback Church, where members meet weekly for an hour or two at someone's home or at a restaurant to study a specific topic, such as a book in the Bible. It's the "secret sauce" because social and community support is the key ingredient to any real change. You cannot do it alone. These small groups enhance commitment and learning and provide ongoing encouragement and emotional support. Saddleback has about 5,000 small groups, and the plan was to use this format to maximize results and help the church get healthier. The prophet Daniel had his posse of like minded supporters and you should too.

Research shows that those who have the highest levels of social activity experience one quarter the amount of mental decline in their golden years as those who are not at all socially active.

The formal start of The Daniel Plan kicked off January 15, 2011 with a big rally at Saddleback Church. It was an enormously popular event and the church had to turn away thousands of people. The excitement was palpable. We'd designed a brain-smart curriculum and 9,200 people signed up to be in our research study. On this day, Rick weighed in at 292 pounds.

Now, we have over 15,000 people signed up for the program and as a church Pastor Warren reported recently that they have lost over 250,000 pounds. Rick, alone, has lost 40 pounds, and he looks healthier and younger! He told the congregation that his secrets include:

1. Focusing on his motivation every day and deciding to view physical and emotional health as a spiritual discipline. He often repeated this New Testament verse. "Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body," (1 Cor. 6:19-20).

2. Keeping a food journal so he knew what he was putting in his mouth. He said it was quite a wake-up call.

3. Drinking water throughout the day.

4. Getting proper sleep. Until we met, Rick spent a day or two a week up all night with no sleep at all. He never knew it was a problem, but research suggests that when people get less than six hours of sleep at night they have lower overall blood flow to the brain, which means more cravings and more bad decisions. Other research suggests that sleep deprivation causes people to be unrealistically optimistic and engage in riskier behaviors. To look and feel younger it is critical to focus on getting enough sleep, which usually means more than seven hours at night.

5. High quality calories. Rick dumped the junk food and focused on only eating high quality food. He told the congregation he eliminated the four white powders: cocaine (he was kidding), sugar, bleached flour and salt. He eliminated donuts from his diet and started each day with a healthy breakfast. He ate smaller meals throughout the day. He stopped drinking his calories (especially sodas), stopped using artificial sweeteners and dumped bread from his diet, as it immediately turns to sugar in the body. Eating this way curbed his cravings. He also started eating slower to enjoy his food more and increase his sense of feeling full faster.

6. Regular exercise that included weight lifting and cardiovascular exercise. He was being much more consistent with his trainer.

7. Simple supplements, such as a multiple vitamin, fish oil and vitamin D.

8. Being accountable to his weekly small group.

All of the components were necessary for the plan to work, and they are all necessary for you to look and feel younger, but it was the small group component that turned out to be the secret sauce that really made the whole thing work. When you do this program with another person, your family, a group of people at church, work, or within your community, the healing process becomes much more powerful.

Whenever I am on the Saddleback Campus I hear story after story of how people's lives have been changed, using the principles of The Daniel Plan. People have told me:
• "I've lost 20 ... 30...40...90..150 pounds"
• "My numbers are so much better!"
- Cholesterol was 202 - now 154
- BP was 142/92 now it is 125/75
- BMI was 35.7 now 26.1
• "No more headaches!!! It's amazing. I was taking prescription pain medication almost daily. It's been more than two weeks without any pain or pills!"
• "My clothes fit loose and I can get back into my old ones."
• "Color is coming back to my gray hair...who knew?"
• "My mood is so much more stable and positive."
• "My asthma is better."
• "With the elimination of sugar, flour, salt, and processed foods, I rarely have any cravings and have found I eat smaller amounts of nutrient rich foods."
• "I just finished chemo. Everyone is amazed at how much energy I have and how fast my hair is returning. I am running circles around a friend who is ten years younger doesn't have cancer. (He is not on the plan.)"
• "My complexion looks great; the improvement in the smoothness of my skin is remarkable."
• "98 percent of my headaches at night have disappeared. I wake up feeling clear headed instead of foggy."
• "I don't have body, joint, muscle pain in the mornings."
• "I'm off my high blood pressure meds... and am working on getting off of my Type 2 diabetes and cholesterol meds."
• "I am diabetic. Now my blood sugar is dramatically better than when I was on insulin. I am not taking either now."
• "I'm having less arthritis (inflammatory) pain."
• "Odd to say this in church, but my sex life has dramatically improved!"

In 2012 we plan on exporting the plan to other churches, temples and mosques. The Daniel Plan is not just a Christian plan. It is a plan to get the world healthy where people gather.

You can learn more by going to www.TheAme­nSolution.­com.