At 6-foot-2 and 328 pounds, Chuck Altman knew it was time to buckle down and shed some weight.
He had been down this road before. And he wasn’t very successful at it.
“You know how it is. You lose a chunk of weight — in my case, it was the low-carb, high-protein Atkins diet — and then you get comfortable, and it creeps back on,” says Altman, 61. “Next thing you know, you’re right back where it started.”
But last month, at his wife’s urging, the South Tampa man agreed to join her in a six-week program at their church based on popular evangelical pastor Rick Warren’s New York Times bestseller “The Daniel Plan: 40 Days to a Healthier Life” (Zondervan, $25).
He admits he was skeptical. But halfway through the weekly sessions at Tampa’s Hyde Park United Methodist Church, Altman is now a believer.
He’s lost 12 pounds so far and can finally make a fist with his once-swollen fingers. He says he’s thinking more clearly and his hips don’t hurt.
He’s making healthier food choices and amping up his exercise regime of walking and swimming. And he’s learning to read labels and avoid processed foods. The pimiento cheese he used to grab for a snack? Now it’s a handful of carrots.
What he likes best about the program is that it’s not a diet. It’s a complete overhaul of his eating habits and a lifestyle change with an emphasis on five areas: faith, food, fitness, focus and friends.
Most of it is common sense. There’s an emphasis on the importance of getting more sleep, drinking more water, eating more “whole, real, fresh foods,” cooking healthy recipes and making time for physical activity.
In other words, if the body is a temple, as the Bible states, then treat it like one.
“I feel fantastic,” says Altman, who works in industrial packing sales. “I’ve got so much more energy and my mood is so improved. I’m thinking this is the real deal.”
Altman’s enthusiasm is echoed by thousands of churchgoers participating in the program either online, in small groups or congregation-wide. And now Warren’s book — released in December and coauthored with physicians Daniel Amen and Mark Hyman — has been joined by “The Daniel Plan Cookbook: Healthy Eating for Life.”
This isn’t the first time Warren, founder of Saddleback Valley Community Church in Southern California, has sparked an international faith-based initiative. His 2002 “The Purpose Driven Life,” is the best-selling hardback nonfiction book in American history, with more than 32 million copies sold in over 50 languages.
He says his inspiration for launching a health plan came at a church baptism of 827 adults in November 2010. Lowering body after body into the water proved to be a formidable task. “Wow! Everybody’s fat!” he thought. And he included himself in the mix, estimating he was carrying about 60 pounds too many.
In interviews, he called that his “aha moment.” He started working with Amen and Hyman, along with the Emmy-winning cardiologist and TV doctor Mehmet Oz — to develop a well-rounded program that would incorporate physical well-being, mental clarity, spiritual development and community support.
In January 2011, Warren was overwhelmed by the response when he issued a challenge to his congregation of some 20,000 to join him in his efforts to make a lifestyle change. On the very first day, 12,000 people signed up, and in a year, they shed some 250,000 pounds.
(Warren lost 65 pounds, but proved he had feet of clay when he fell off the wagon after his son, Matthew, 27, committed suicide last year. He has since gotten back on track and is nearly back at his goal again.)
So who’s the Daniel in the plan? It’s the Old Testament prophet, who refused rich foods and only ate healthier fare for 10 days to demonstrate his resistance to King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. Though the Scripture doesn’t specify what the prophet ate (Daniel 1:8: “But Daniel made up his mind that he would not defile himself with the king’s choice food or with the wine which he drank”), Warren used that biblical account as a foundation for his program.
“If it grows on a plant, it’s healthy. If it’s made in a plant, don’t eat it,” he told USA Today. “My rule is no snacks, no sweets, no seconds.” He also wanted simplicity for participants, so he and the creators came up with a typical Daniel plate: one-quarter starch, one-quarter lean protein and one-half nonstarchy vegetables.
“This is about abundance, not deprivation,” Warren said.
Grace Family Church in Lutz is all in with the Daniel Plan. It has an interactive website dedicated solely to the effort (www.gfcdanielplan.com), daily exercise classes led by church members who are professional trainers, a weekly sermon tailored around the program, church-sponsored fun runs on the weekends and small groups for support.
Earlier this month, the church brought in Danny Cahill, winner of the eighth season of NBC’s “The Biggest Loser.” He delivered an inspirational message about his 239-pound weight loss and how he’s kept it off, and served as a judge for the church’s “Under 500-Calories” recipe contest.
Grace Family member Mary Vars, who won that contest with her Quinoa Salad Supreme, is “giddy with joy” since committing to the program. Though her profession suggests she would know better — she’s the author of “Essential Gluten-Free Recipes” and a personal chef — she admits to being on the “chunky side.”
“I eat healthy, but I eat too much,” she says. Now she’s attending the workout classes every morning, which is a dramatic lifestyle change. “I’m limping and hobbling, but I’m sticking with it. And I’ve already noticed a tremendous change. I’ve lost weight, I feel strong and I feel in control.”
Asked to pick the best part of the Daniel Plan, Vars doesn’t hesitate. It’s having a community of like-minded friends joining her on a journey to better health, along with some divine companionship.
“I feel like God’s got my hand and we’re walking side-by-side,” she says. “It’s strengthened my faith in so many ways. God’s got my back and I can do this.”