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People of Faith Make Dietary Choices Part of Their Spirituality
By Galen Holley   |  Jan 31, 2009

A variety of religions hold that our food choices impact our spiritual well-being. Some base their dietary prescriptions on sacred texts. Others pay special attention to social concerns like world hunger. All encourage followers to honor food and to consume it with reverence and moderation.

Denise Backstrom, a member of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tupelo, also a chef and practitioner of Yoga, said mindful eating can be understood in a number of ways.

“Taken one way, it means being aware of how one’s food choices, such as to eat fast food or food from local, organic gardens, impact others,” said Backstrom. “In another way, it means slowing down and concentrating on food, including its texture and flavor, and being grateful for the experience.”

The Old Testament, specifically the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, contains numerous dietary laws, most of them dealing with clean and unclean animals and how food is to be prepared. In the Jewish faith, these laws are known collectively as “kosher.”

According to Marc Perler, a lay leader at Temple B’Nai Israel in Tupelo, “kosher” means ritually pure and prescribes things like avoiding pork, shellfish, or any meat with blood in it. Kosher laws also dictate that animals should be slaughtered in a humane manner.

“The laws represent the discipline Jews believe God wishes people to exercise when it comes to eating,” said Perler.

Today Orthodox Jews follow kosher law strictly and Reformed communities like Temple B’Nai do so to the extent that it’s reasonable and possible. Perler added that kosher laws have influenced the dietary practices of a number of other faiths, particularly those of some Christian denominations.

Seventh-day Adventists also look to the Old Testament for instruction about eating. Adventists are predominantly vegetarians. Adventists believe that before the flood destroyed the earth, as recounted in Gen. 6, “Man only ate herbs, grains, fruits, and other plants,” said Ray Elsberry, minister at Tupelo First Seventh-day Adventist Church. Adventists try to follow this diet today.

After the flood, Elsberry said, “God gave permission to eat certain animals.” Like Jews, Adventists consider pigs unclean. They also avoid caffeine and alcohol.

Following these rules has been hard for Elsberry. Before converting 35 years ago, he said his two of his favorite foods were pork chops and catfish. Now, he can’t have either because, as he said, “Catfish is a scavenger and doesn’t have scales as the Leviticus 11 instructs.”

In addition to other dietary guidelines, Muslims also avoid pork, a rule set forth in their holy book, The Koran. According to Damilola Sadiq Owodunni, a Muslim student at the University of Mississippi, those guidelines are also taken from the exemplary life of the prophet Muhammed, and include abstaining from alcohol or any animal that has been slaughtered under conditions of extreme duress.

Owodunni said Muslims prefer to eat meat slaughtered under their religion’s guidelines, called “Zabihah,” but, like Reformed Jews, they make exceptions when circumstances make it a hardship to follow the practice strictly.

Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints take their dietary cues from the Word of Wisdom, a text they believe was revealed to Joseph Smith in the 19th Century. Nels Thorderson, bishop of the Tupelo Ward of the LDS Church, said God promised “health, protection, knowledge, and wisdom,” to those who followed this revelation.

The Word of Wisdom instructs LDS to eat grains, fruits, and herbs in season. It also advises eating meat in moderation and strongly advises against the use of alcohol, tobacco, or any kind of intoxicant.

Social consequences

Perler stressed that kosher laws are not arbitrary. They’re a set of guidelines for the relationship Jews are to have with food and, by extension, to all of God’s creation. “They have the effect of making us mindful of the sources from which food comes, as well as the repercussions that follow from our eating,” said Perler.

That mindfulness in eating is perhaps more important today than ever as people of faith become increasingly aware of the impact their food choices have on the world.

The Rev. Tim Murphy, pastor of St. Christopher Catholic Church in Pontotoc, converted to vegetarianism after years of being a “voracious meat-eater.” His choice has raised his awareness of world hunger.

“I read it takes 20 pounds of grain to produce one pound of meat,” said Murphy. “That really got my attention.”

One consequence of increases in meat consumption worldwide is that the cost of rice on the international market has seen unprecedented highs in recent months. The World Bank recently announced that 33 countries are now confronting food crises, due largely to the scarcity of clean water and the high price of grain.

“Without being smug about it, I think that denying ourselves helps us better understand where people throughout the world are really suffering,” said Murphy.

Owodunni said Muslims fast frequently, particularly during the holy days of Ramadan, and that’s partly to remind them of the importance of charitable giving and that the hungry and poor should always be cared for.

Jennifer Falkey, another member of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation, became a vegetarian partly because of what she’s learned about cattle farming in places like South America.

“Slashing rain forests, removing native vegetation and replacing it with concentrated feed lots, places where animals can’t graze and live in a natural environment, practices like this have really influenced my choice not to eat meat,” said Falkey.

Mieko Kikuchi, a Japanese liaison with Renasant Bank, practices a mixture of Shinto and Buddhism. She said although these religions don’t follow dietary restrictions, Shinto places great importance on humans coexisting harmoniously with nature.

Therefore, said Kikuchi, the concepts of avoiding waste and eating from sustainable sources are important to the religion’s followers.

“We honor the natural world, which sustains us, and have great respect for animals, plants, and the environment as a whole,” said Kikuchi.

Personal, spiritual benefits

Mindful eating also has positive consequences on a personal level.

As of 2006 an estimated 800 million people worldwide were hungry, but they were outnumbered by the one billion who were overweight. The United States, in particular, has seen unprecedented increases in recent years in obesity.

Elsberry of the Adventists is well aware of these trends and said his denomination’s diet serves both a spiritual and salutary function.

“Eating healthy just makes sense in this day and age,” said Elsberry. He eats locally grown, organic produce whenever possible, and said many Adventists cultivate their own gardens and preserve vegetables.

Falkey of the Unitarians said her two-person household always eats from a seasonable table. “Right now we’re eating greens, collards, spinach, squash, turnip greens, and sweet potatoes from Vardaman,” she said. “I feel great about where my money is going because I’m patronizing local farmers.” She’s looking forward to the spring for blueberries, asparagus, and a summertime favorite, watermelon.

Backstrom of the Unitarians said mindful eating is a great weight-loss tool.

“When you eat slowly, and savor, you eat less. You don’t feel that rush to gorge yourself,” she said.

Perler of the Jewish temple said it’s surprising how healthy a kosher diet is. “When one concentrates on food preparation it promotes moderation and gratitude,” he said.

As a physician, Thorderson said the benefits of following the Word of Wisdom are indisputable.

“When we eat healthy we feel better about ourselves. We don’t have to worry about our bodies and we can let the spiritual inside take over. We can let the spirit, rather than our appetites, guide us,” he said.

Backstrom, who prepares meals for patrons in their homes, said mindful eating doesn’t have to be an elaborate, involved process. She said the family supper – “although it’s disappearing from society” – is the perfect place to slow down, chew slowly, and become aware of the food’s goodness and the circumstances that produced it.

“Eating this way you become aware of the interconnectedness of everything,” said Backstrom. “The pleasures of good, healthy food, the pleasure of self-awareness, the pleasure of family.”