In the land of the large, food has become almost like football.

Just ask Richard Shea, whose organization sponsors a regular circuit of fast-and-furious eating contests.

”Americans love that type of competition,” said Shea, president of the the New York-based International Federation of Competitive Eating.

But he denies that watching someone devour 15 burritos or 49 doughnuts in eight minutes is symptomatic of the overweight-and-out-of-shape epidemic that experts say has hit the United States.

”I would argue that if America is obese, it’s because they go to these warehouses or club stores and they can get a crate of Fritos or sugary drinks or salty snacks at low cost,” he said. ”And that’s what America is living on.”

Today, statistics show, one-fifth to one-third of Americans are obese — defined as being at least 30 to 40 pounds overweight. The causes, most agree, are overeating and a lack of exercise.

Obesity-related health-care costs were about $117 billion in 2000, according to the U.S. surgeon general.

In times past, overeating — often called gluttony — has received its share of attention in the religious world, with many faiths condemning it as a failure to follow the precept of moderation in all things. In the book of Sirach, among the apocryphal works that stand alongside Scripture, is this warning:

“Do not give yourself up to food; for overeating brings sickness, and gluttony leads to nausea.”

In the New Testament, Paul said the body is ”the temple of the Holy Spirit” that must be cared for. In medieval times, gluttony made the list of the Roman Catholic Church’s seven deadliest sins.

Fasting as discipline

The idea of fasting — abstaining from certain foods or from eating altogether at certain times — was a way of discouraging gluttony among early Christians, said Stephen Webb, professor of religion at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Ind.

But fasting days — which at one time included more than half the days of the year in the church calendar — were aimed more at spiritual health, ”because we need to be careful about our desires and we need to discipline them,” he said.

Webb, author of the book Good Eating, said that through the centuries Christians became less concerned with taking care of their bodies. Now, as the nation’s girth grows, it’s difficult for clergy members to talk about it.

”You’re up there talking about gluttony, and you look out on the congregation and quite frankly, quite honestly, you see a lot of people who are way, way overweight,” he said. ”You realize this is a personal issue, it’s a hard issue. You don’t want to offend anybody.”

But taking care of oneself is something that every person should be thinking about, Webb said, noting that it is part of many religious creeds and histories. It’s something that can be discussed, ”as long as you don’t lay it out as a guilt trip,” he said.

”People are hungry to have some spiritual direction to their eating habits because we’re quite literally drowning in bad eating habits,” he said.

In evangelical Christianity, material concerns, such as good health, often lose out to spiritual matters, said Wyndy Corbin, associate professor of theology and ethics at Ashland Theological Seminary in Ashland, Ohio.

”There is this privileging of the spiritual over the material,” she said. ”People’s real needs are spiritual. So when you hear Christians talk about evangelism and social action, like feeding the poor, that is important. But their really bigger need is to know Jesus.”

Corbin said Americans need to reflect on how their overeating habits affect others, within the context of responsibility to each other as stewards of the world given to them by God.

They should be asking, she said, ”Who is my neighbor today in this world that is intricately connected, where my buying habits and my consumption patterns probably are at the expense of someone else?”

Similarly, Christian Scientists, known for their belief in bodily healing through proper living and prayer, hold that the obligation to be healthy is tied to their duty to help others, said Donely Johnson, spokesman for Christian Scientists in Ohio.

Being healthy puts a person ”in a position to be obedient to the commandment of loving your neighbor as you love yourself, so you’re able to contribute to society in a better way,” Johnson said.

Moderation as guide

Jews believe people have an obligation to maintain good health because they are created in God’s image, said Barnett Brickner, interim rabbi at Temple Israel on the Far East Side.

”Our body in a sense is the house of the soul,” Brickner said. ”Therefore, given this is a temporary thing for us, God’s gift to us, we take care of it.”

Without good health, he said, people are unable to enjoy the many beautiful things God has created.

Judaism’s dietary laws — part of the faith since ancient times — were created more to promote Jewish identity, not for health reasons, he said. Fasting on certain holy days of the year is meant to cleanse spiritually, not bodily, Brickner said.

While eating is part of many Jewish celebrations, he said, ”everything is accepted in moderation in our tradition.”

Kenny Loy, a nutritionist in Madison, Ala., said it was his study of the Bible that led him to start eating better and shed weight beginning in 1994.

Loy, author of The Prophet Daniel’s Guide to Nutrition, said biblical directives convinced him that he needed to take better care of himself.

”If you believe God’s word is inspired, you want to follow it to the best of your ability. And that’s why I turned in that direction,” he said.

Loy said Americans need to be self-disciplined about their health and not blame others, such as fast-food companies.

”That’s one I think that’s tough for everybody,” he said. ”And I believe the lack of discipline may be part of the reason Americans have become obese.”

Among United Methodists, ordination candidates must exhibit ”habits conducive to bodily health” if they want to become ministers, said the Rev. Norman ”Ned” Dewire, president of the Methodist Theological School in Ohio in Delaware.

Churches themselves add to bulging waistlines, he said, because food is an integral part of so many activities.

”I like to call it the potluck-to-potbelly syndrome,” Dewire said. ”There’s a lot of potlucks in a lot of churches that lead to a lot of potbellied preachers and lay people.”

While he considers overeating silly rather than sinful, Dewire agreed with Loy that people need to learn to check themselves.

”Part of the joy of the Christian faith is a disciplined life,” he said. ”Discipline involves what you put in your mouth.”

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