By Peggy Matthews Rose

Read Joann’s letter to Pastor Rick.

With The Daniel Plan’s emphasis on healthy eating and weight loss, it’s easy to think it’s just about our physical health. But as Jo Willems will tell you firsthand, there’s no separating our physical, spiritual, and mental well-being.

Following a stressful childhood, marriage had disappointed her and a serious car accident left her barely able to function. Spiritually, she was confused. So intense had her physical, emotional, and spiritual suffering become, she’d actually contemplated suicide.

Food comforted Jo and became a pillow against the constant pain of reality. And it worked—until the day she faced the fact that the food had taken control. “After years of using food to cope,” Jo said, she’d become “extremely obese”—weighing in, at her highest, at well over 300 pounds.

One day, Jo remembers, “my sweet mother-in-law sat me down and told me she was worried about me. She knew there was a history of heart disease and other health issues in my family. No one in my family had ever confronted me—not even my husband. They’d all just accepted me the way I was. Somehow her words and the gentleness she used got my attention.”

Jo realized she’d been neglecting her health and, having recently completed a Celebrate Recovery step program, she was finally ready to be honest with herself. She was ready to ask, “Why am I eating myself to death?” and actually listen to the answers.

On her husband’s advice, Jo saw a physician, who diagnosed her with low thyroid and recommended a plan of action. “Once I started taking medication for that, I stopped the action of putting on another 25 pounds every year.”

She was put under the care of a nurse, who had her journal and kept her honest. Jo knew she needed the daily accountability. “That process helped me stop eating sweets, and begin implementing vegetables, fruit, protein. I was amazed to see that, with this balance in my life, I wasn’t craving the other things!”

In addition to eating better and monitoring her health, Jo says she “gave up being sedentary. Before, just walking up the stairs had me huffing and puffing. My feet hurt too much to actually go for a walk. They told me just to move more. It wasn’t the idea of a big workout. So I used a pedometer to help me walk a little more each day. Like the proverbial tortoise, I finally got there.” In less than two years, she lost 150 pounds—“over half my weight!” she says.

Still, it was more than just physical. “The biggest thing to overcome was the self-talk, ‘the committee in my head.’ I really have to fight that still. Overcoming involves the transformation of my mind and my thinking. Some people carry guilt over their actions. For me, it’s my very thinking that keeps me accountable to God.”

Jo had begun a personal relationship with Christ as a high school student and thought she was living the Christian life as a wife, mom, and business partner.

“It wasn’t until I came to this crossroads that I began to understand what it meant to surrender every moment. I couldn’t keep running away, hiding my head in the sand and hoping it would just go away if I didn’t think about it. Surrender is not just a one time thing. It’s what allows the power of God to work in my life. For me, the change happened when I gave up and gave it to God.”

It’s been about 10 years now since God first helped Jo break her food addiction, but as she will tell you, recovery is an ongoing process. Today, she knows it’s not about having the perfect body, but about living in an attitude of surrender to God.

“I still have food triggers,” she says, “but I recognize them better. I’ve learned to pinpoint and speak what emotions I am feeling in the first place. I have had a relapse, where I focused on my problems and all the stress, and started to not take care of myself—not doing the things that keep me body and mind healthy. I was able to get back on track by checking in more with my accountability team, fully trusting in Jesus, and basically going back to the habits and principles that keep me strong and moving forward.

When Saddleback Church launched The Daniel Plan in January, it was at just the right time for Jo. “I was going back into workforce and sensed I was stuck again, so the timing was just what I needed.” She joined an online group that went to the January launch and through the program together. As a result, she’s dropped another 38 pounds!

A longtime leader with Celebrate Recovery, Jo has started a women’s food addictions group, helping people cope with all kinds of eating-related issues. “A food addict, I’ve learned, can be any extreme. An anorexic, for example, can easily become an overeater or an over-exerciser. It all comes from the same place. God’s given me a heart to reach out to others who are struggling and help as we learn to apply God’s Word to our lives.”