NORCO, Calif. When Grace Soeter heard that this generation of children is the first to have a life expectancy shorter than their parents due to obesity-related issues, she knew she had to act. The Norco resident launched Healthy Families International to help educate children and their parents about nutrition and godly eating.
The Fuller Theological Seminary graduate developed several fun, interactive presentations and took them into public libraries, community centers, schools and churches.
To date, the homeschooling mom has spoken to more than 5,000 children in dozens of Inland Empire schools.
"We need to wake up," Soeter said. "We're dealing with a tremendous obesity and health crisis. I'm very concerned about the children."
Soeter, wife of Pastor Matthew Soeter of the First Evangelical Church of Diamond Bar, sees this as her mission field. And she doesn't apologize for her Christian perspective.
"I can go into any circle to educate both adults and children about nutrition," she said. " I speak openly about eating the food God created and about taking care of our bodies because the Creator gave us this wonderful gift. It's never been a problem to talk about God in that context."
The children's favorite part of Soeter's presentation is usually the "Guess the Sugar Content" game. In it, students are challenged to guess how many packets of sugar are hiding in popular foods and drinks. The young sleuths are usually astounded to learn that Mountain Dew has 20 packets of sugar, or 1/2 cup, in a 20-ounce serving.
In the "Traffic Light Nutrition" game children learn to eat lots of "green light" foodsfruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and whole grains. "Yellow light foods" are those that should be eaten only in moderation while "red light foods" are those that should be completely avoided.
Nutrition Spy Kids learn to read food labels and look for things to avoid such as partially hydrogenated oils, chemically altered oil that renders it solid at room temperature. A definite "red light" food, this manmade fat is banned in Europe.
The Rainbow Foods presentation teaches children to load their plates with the whole spectrum of colors: yellow, red, orange, purple and green, while Officer McHealthy inspects lunchboxes for good and poor food choices.
Soeter's latest offering is a Bible-based family nutrition presentation designed for Christian settings.
"Nutrition has been a blind spot in the church as well as in the world," she said. "Our kids are more familiar with the McDonalds arches than the cross."
Soeter draws from the Old and New Testaments to build a case for healthy eating.
"In the beginning God gave us plants for food," she said.
Moses also recorded food restrictions, such as the prohibition against eating pork and shellfish. When asked if she is promoting a vegetarian lifestyle, Soeter answers "Not particularly."
"As Christians we're not bound by Jewish laws," she said. "Yet, there are reasons for each of the dietary restrictions. Pigs ate the garbage. Eating pork made people more prone to disease. That doesn't mean you should never touch seafood, but I'm not going to eat it every day."
The New Testament, she said, brings another dimension to the nutritional mosaic. The Apostle Paul speaks about the body as God's temple. "Yet," she said, "we pollute it with junk food."
Beware of dualism
Soeter cautions Christians against the age-old heresy of dualism.
"Churches today don't seem to care what you do with your body as long as you're spiritual," she said. "That's dualism. For example, what do they serve in churches? Coffee and donuts. The youth groups serve sodas, chips, hot dogs, pizza, and junk food. As long as we study the Bible and pray, it's OK to put junk food in our bodies."
Soeter said she doesn't believe such separation is valid.
"Our bodies were created so wonderfully by our Heavenly father that if we put junk food into them it is going to affect every aspect of usour emotions, our bodies and our spirits."
Christians, she said, should not only be the healthiest people on earth, but they should also be leading others, teaching them how to eat healthy.
"We know the Creator and the foods He has made," she said. "Yet we turn to hot dogs and other processed foods. The basic rule is to eat what God has made in as natural form as possible. Stay away from man-made foods. You'll stay healthier that way."
Soeter wants nutrition education preached from the top.
"If we want to teach people the importance of taking care of their bodies as a temple we have to start with the pastors, the youth leaders and the children's ministry leaders," the pastor's wife said. "They must know what kinds of foods are healthy so they can encourage good choices."
According to Soeter, Christian institutions lag behind other public groups in making healthy changes.
"We're way behind the public schools," she said. "They're cutting out sodas and what do we serve to our youth groups? Soda and chips. I get so frustrated when I see that. I teach in public schools and they change. Yet the church still feeds my kids junk food and candy."
Soeter has her own reasons for being nutrition conscious. After a painful five-year battle with lupus, a debilitating autoimmune disease, she decided to try something different.
Realizing there must be a way out of her chronic fatigue and joint pain, Soeter turned to prayer.
"I asked God to show me how to get better," she said. "I knew that a lot of diseases were caused by stress. So I learned to pray, let go and surrender."
God answered her prayer through the fruit of the ground. Six years after the young mother discovered the benefits of nutrition, sleep, exercise, drinking lots of pure water, and stress reduction, she reports she is in total remission.
Soeter has a challenge for the churches.
"We need to see the obesity epidemic as a prime opportunity to make a difference in our communities," she said. "Churches can offer healthy lifestyle classes. If we offer this type of assistance then they will see the church in a whole different light. They will see us meeting their needs and not separating from the world. If we can meet someone's physical needs they are much more open to spiritual needs as well. It leads to opportunities to share the Lord with them."
For more information, visit www.healthyfamiliesinternational.org or call 951-272-3222.