Thursday, January 3, 2013

Food and the Bible: A Holy Way to Eat?

Hello friends! My time off has allowed me to meditate on a few things, like the spiritual significance of the plant-based lifestyle. This is definitely a long one, and there's no enticing food recipe to reward your labors, but I hope you'll stick with it! You might find some encouragement for your own movement against the food-culture grain! 

Something as radical as an exclusive, strict, life-altering diet often makes Christians (like me) wonder: What does the Bible have to say about the moral value of certain foods?

I wrestled with this question and others. Is there a spiritual imperative for the way that we eat? Does God care if I cut meat and milk out of my diet? Didn't He sanction and bless the consumption of those foods when He provided His ancient peoples with animal flesh, with fishing industries, and with promised lands flowing with milk and honey? Do specific food groups carry moral weight and consequences?

I also get similar questions as arguments against my way of eating:

"Didn't Jesus eat fish? If Jesus was God and He ate fish, then it must be okay."
"Didn't Jesus tell Peter that all meat was considered clean?"
"Didn't the Israelites sacrifice meat and drink milk?"
"Clearly God wants us to eat meat; it's in the Bible!"

Yes, these things do occur in Scripture. And while websites, churches, and organizations abound who extract Bible verses to either scripturally reinforce or denounce certain ways of eating, I'm not here to say that Christianity teaches a preferred way of eating at all (other than to eat responsibly; there's no way to fulfill the call to steward our bodies by ignoring what we feed them). I truly believe, however, that there is Christian freedom in the area of food: "All things are permissible, but not everything is beneficial" (1 Cor 10:23) (1).

This verse tells me two things about God's character and, therefore, what He might think about food choices:

1. All things are permissible: To an extent, we have the freedom to feed our vessels as we see fit. I don't think there is spiritual approval assigned to some food groups and spiritual disapproval assigned to others.

2. But not all things are beneficial: God does care what choices we make. Clearly there are spiritual implications for our negative choices: the choices to feed it junk food, to nurture food addictions, to allow ourselves to crave food more than we crave God, or to ignore the potential ill-effects of our current food supply. These spiritually-charged decisions don't determine salvation, but they do reflect the heart issues of obedience and stewardship. Even if there is no "law" against treating our bodies like garbage heaps, there are certainly physical, and perhaps spiritual, consequences for ignoring God's command to govern our vessels with honor and self-control.

These considerations tie into my choice to remain 100% plant-based despite the sanctioned consumption of animal products recorded in the Bible. Something we like to do with the Word, perhaps to our own disadvantage, is extract biblical truths as universal, when they may have been time-sensitive and cultural.

"Oh boy," you might be thinking. "Is she going to say that it was permissible to eat meat in the ancient Middle East and it's a sin to eat meat in 21st century America?" No! First of all, that's silly. Second of all, I'm not a theologian, a credited biblical scholar, a student of ancient culture, or a sage. That being so, I claim no inspired, authoritative insight on this issue and I assign no moral value to eating or not eating meat. I do think there's moral value to eating well or poorly, but that's not the same as audaciously claiming that my dietary restrictions are spiritually correct. Rather, I'm sharing how I've made sense of my food choices in light of what the Bible seems to endorse and encourage for its original readers.

To me, it seems possible that what was a valid, nutritious, and available source of calories for the ancient peoples of the Bible may have been better for them than it would be for us today. Instead of "right" versus "wrong" we may be dealing with "appropriate" versus "ideal." It's very possible that the environmental conditions of their day made animal products acceptable for consumption, whereas in our industrialized and polluted setting, excessive meat and milk intake might be a risky enterprise that complicates bodily stewardship. It's possible that animal products, due to modern factors unseen by previous centuries, are just no longer healthy foods. Let me explain...

This consideration begins to explain why I feed myself the way I do (and how I hope to feed my future children); it's not how you have to feel by any means. But from what I've learned, there are multiple factors contributing to our current increasing cancer rates: our polluted, processed food supply being one. There are also environmental toxins that assault our bodies in thousands of ways on a daily basis: PVC's, synthetic materials in offices and homes, chemicalized water supplies, off-gasings and leachings from plastics, parabens in cosmetics, industrial plant air pollution, radiation, and so on. This being so, we are clearly dealing with a different environmental "animal" than the ancient Israelites ever had to. And since diet and lifestyle are the only two measures we can take to reduce our chances of succumbing to environmentally-caused diseases, then devoting my caloric intake to 100% plant-based, cancer-fighting food is the best thing I can do to help my body combat the onslaught of carcinogens.

The fact is that cancer is actually 2-3% genetic and 97-98% environmentally induced (2). We are learning that diet plays such an important role in whether or not someone will succumb to this disease that it really ought to be considered a disease of malnutrition (4). Also, cancer is not the only disease we are facing at alarming rates. Allergies, hyperactivity, autism, diabetes, heart disease, asthma, metabolic syndrome, arthritis, migraines, autoimmune disorders (just to name several) are incredibly diet-related. Not always, but FAR more often than you'd think. We have been led to believe that genetics determine our fates in regard to these illnesses; that we are victims in the sea of diagnoses and pharmaceuticals. But the self-empowering fact is that genes only load the gun, "diet and lifestyle pull the trigger" (3). Yes, God is always sovereign; we will experience whatever trials He deems necessary for our spiritual maturation and for the furtherance of His will. But that doesn't obviate the agency we often have in whether or not we will fall prey to a host of avoidable illnesses.

So no, meat and dairy do not carry spiritual value in and of themselves: this seems clear in Peter's revelation about clean and unclean food (Acts 10). At the very least, this famous passage teaches us that food, because of its cultural significance, should not become a reason for division, legalism, and spiritual pride within the body of Christ. Hence why I will not deem veganism as the "right" way to live, even if I think it's ideal. ;)

But what of animal products in a nutritional sense? As I've said, I think meat and dairy were simply available and valid sources of calories in the geographical location that ancient people lived. I also assume that they had a less excessive and polluted food supply than we do and less environmental toxins to predispose them to preventable "diseases of affluence" (that we now know nutrition can combat). Perhaps animal foods truly were "clean" for a society where water wasn't polluted with mercury and toxins, where farm animals weren't pumped with antibiotics and gut-damaging corn-feed, where crowded slaughterhouses weren't unsanitarily releasing food-born illnesses into our groceries, and so on. Meat and dairy were neutral food sources that became cultural and religious fixtures in their society. There is no reason why the Bible should have deemed some food sources better than others, hence the equal endorsement for plant and animal foods throughout Scripture.

Yet it's possible that animal products are no longer ideal food sources today. (Again, not that they are sinful foods, just no longer healthy ones.) Not only were they much less tainted, but they were probably consumed in more limited quantities. Even if you opt for organic milk and grain-fed beef, there's no guarantee that these products are truly as clean as their lofty labels say. According to Julieanna Hever:

[I]n your chemical cocktail [of dairy] lies antibiotic residues, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, veterinary drugs, fertilizers, synthetic preservatives, and additives. Surprisingly, many studies find little difference between levels of the aformentioned compounds in organic dairy when compared to conventional. So just because you pay more for the "organic" label doesn't mean you're getting a safe, toxin-free product. (93)  

Plus, dairy products still harbor naturally occurring cancer-promoters like IGF-1 Factor, which occurs in any dairy product, no matter the source or brand. IGF-1 is a powerful cause of hormonal cancers, like prostate (the rates of which increase 5 times with dairy consumption). Our over-consumption of ubiquitous dairy seems to be lending itself to increased cancer rates, as well as other autoimmune diseases like type 1 diabetes (3). I don't know how frequently ancient populations consumed meat and dairy, but it's likely that previous centuries did not have the unlimited access to animal products that we have today with our dairy campaigns, processed foods, grocery stores, refrigeration, and chemical preservatives. (But this just a conjecture).

There's also a growing belief that animal protein, especially in excess (think Standard American Diet [SAD]), promotes cancer growth after initiation. This means that if cancer initiates in my body from some environmental carcinogen (which is likely happening in anyone's body at any given moment), then my consumption of meat and dairy could be nurturing the growth of that mutated cell, whereas nutrient-rich fruits and veggies would combat and reverse that precancerous event (2). A simple exercise of logic then follows suit: If there are more cancer-causing agents in this environment than ever, and if meat and dairy cause more damage than good in the war against this epidemic, then it's probably best that I avoid them. Veganism might really be a tactic of "better safe than sorry" these days. Eating more fruits and veggies certainly won't HURT anyone! It's hard to say the same for meat and dairy. So why not err on the safe side?

People debate whether these microscopic cancer scenarios are 100% accurate, but the proof seems to be in the pudding. Vegetarians and vegans who consume plant-foods get less cancer and live longer. Even if you reduce meat and dairy in your diet, you will reserve more of your caloric intake for disease-fighting fruits and veggies. I've already had cancer by the age of 22. I need life-long medicine and routine check-ups to make sure it never comes back. I'm not messing around. I'm saving ALL of my caloric intake for plant foods if that lends itself to never hearing "you have cancer" ever again.

In all honesty, writing this post scares me. Scripture is all too often distorted and abused by presumptuous self-scholars. I don't want to be guilty of misappropriating God's holy, sacred truths. But that fear doesn't change the fact that the Bible is dynamic and relevant in different ways for different audiences. God gave us brains and reason; He has equipped us to interpret scriptural imperatives like: take care of your temple according to the knowledge and resources we have available to us.

So while some might say, "God first gave us a garden, and then sin and the Fall introduced meat, so really we should be vegetarians (Gen 1:29)"; or "Daniel ate vegetables and prospered (Dan 1:12)"; or "The Israelites were specifically given meat to eat" (Lev 11:2), we still need to apply our intellect to our context as 21st century industrialized Americans. We still have a responsibility to assess our current food choices in light of our timeless call to bodily stewardship. The approaches to self-care are dynamic and changeable and we should explore what the best mode of bodily stewardship is for us today.

Romans 12:2 exhorts: "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect." Testing the good and acceptable and perfect will of God is an ongoing assignment. There are fixed moral absolutes outlined in God's word that are universal and eternal. We do not question them. When we desire to know God's will, we refer to the Word and there they are, immovable and resolute, for us to obey. But we also need to continually use our gifts of reason to determine, in accordance with Scripture and God's character, what is His will might be in this time, in this situation, for this culture.

Is it God's will that modern people eat a vegan diet? I cannot say that. But I do think it's His will for us to steward our bodies and protect our families from self-inflicted illnesses to the best of our abilities. If you find that veganism (meaning plant-based, whole foods!) is the optimal way for you to do that, as I have, then go for it! If you feel in your conscience that a more balanced whole-foods, omnivorous plan is preferable, then that is also good! The point is that we apply ourselves to the task of investigating our food choices and prayerfully make the best decisions we can with the information we have. I would say that the main mistake we make is to continue blindly and carelessly consuming an addictive and convenient SAD simply because it's tasty and easy. We need to do the hard work of questioning whether we're living lives of ease and pleasure in an effort to avoid exercising wisdom and restraint.

So I do not write this to put a "yoke of bondage" on any believer or to make a human law stating that veganism is a moral absolute. I do think that using the biblical consumption of meat and dairy as an excuse to ignore nutritional realities and to validate food addictions is just as misguided as extracting vegan and omnivorous imperatives from isolated bible verses. Instead of lifting scriptural "evidences" from the Word to validate what we already want to do, we should evaluate what we know about God's character and His word and synthesize that, to the best of our ability, with what we know about our society and resources today. Thankfully, the Holy Spirit will empower us for the task!

(1) Made to Crave by Lysa TerKeurst
(2) The China Study by Dr. Colin T. Campbell
(3) The Complete Idiot's Guide to Plant Based Nutrition by Julieanna Hever
(4) Eat to Live by Dr. Joel Fuhrman


  1. This has been my biggest "argument" when folks ask me about not eating meat or dairy. Besides just wanting to fill the bulk of our diets with plants, it makes me sick to learn how our food is manufactured/raised/marketed/sold. I don't want to put that in my body (or my family's) and I don't want to support industries that make our food unsafe for us. In Bible times they weren't injecting animals with hormones and antibiotics and keeping them in nasty pens before washing them with ammonia and shipping them around the country. People think it's a weird hippy thing to cut that out of your diet, but feel like it's becoming essential just to stay healthy.

  2. Yes, Veronica! I think that makes absolute sense. I've come across at least one Christian health-food site that used multiple scriptures to validate milk as an intended blessing from God, and I just don't think that syncs with what we're dealing with today - regardless of it being organic, raw, local, or what have you. Those differences don't resolve the fact that there are just too many good reasons to skip on the animal food (cholesterol, heart and vascular health, fat, natural growth hormones intended to make a baby calf double its birth weight in two months, etc). I agree that it's kind of a survival tactic these days: trying to navigate our polluted environment and filthy food supply seemingly makes drastic changes like veganism necessary when such probably wasn't the case pre-industrialization. Thanks for reading and for the insight!