The Newest Diet Trend: What Would Jesus Eat?
God cries when you eat Pop-Tarts. But He smiles when you drink carrot juice, and when you do a colon cleanse, He beams.
That's the spirit driving one of America's biggest current diet fads. Granted, you've probably never heard of it unless you hang with Bible-believing Christians, but it goes by many names: the Hallelujah Diet, the Maker's Diet, the Lord's Diet, the Genesis 1:29 Diet. Some versions are vegan, some largely raw; all include organic whole grains -- and some of their kingpins have piously channeled this fad into multimillion-dollar enterprises, hawking must-have supplements at hefty prices. An eight-ounce bottle of phosphatidylcholine (a membrane extracted from soybeans or egg yolks) for $124.99? Sure, when its brand name reads like a promise: Divine Health.
Christians are fatter than other Americans. One of several studies revealing this, published by a Purdue University team in 2006, found that 30 percent of Baptists are obese, followed by 22 percent of Pentecostals and 17 percent of Catholics, compared to only 1 percent of Jews and 0.7 percent of Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists. According to the Journal of the Southern Baptist Convention, health screenings were given at the SBC's 2005 annual meeting: Over 75 percent of its 1,472 participants were found to be significantly overweight.
It makes sense that some within the movement would want to restore health to the flock. Gluttony, after all, is a sin. But how do you persuade religious Christians to adopt a dietary regimen that has been beloved by hippies for 30-plus years and by polytheists for thousands? The very fact that "health food" is an alt-culture staple is enough to taint it in the eyes of some. How do you convince them to switch their Sunday hams for lettuce-lentil roll-ups? By telling them the Bible says they must.
"Your Heavenly Father, in His infinite wisdom, knows which foods are not fit for you to eat," we read at Hem-of-His-Garment-Bible-Study.org, which offers a "Jesus Saves" lesson in its "What's Hot!" box. "And, in His infinite love for you, He shared that wisdom. ... God really does care what you put in your mouth." Urging readers to follow the clean animals/dirty animals rules of kashrut, as outlined in Leviticus, the site's author also endorses Jordan S. Rubin, a Christian motivational speaker and self-described "Biblical Health Coach" whose book The Maker's Diet (Siloam, 2005) was a New York Times bestseller.
At the Web site of his Biblical Health Institute, which sells online courses leading to Certified Biblical Health Coach certificates, Rubin writes that he has "known Jesus as my Lord and Savior since I was eight years old" and that he was cured of Crohn's Disease at age 19 in 1996 after spending 40 days eating only "whole foods consumed in Biblical times," mainly yogurt, whole grains, organic produce and grass-fed meats. From this, he devised his diet plan, dividing edibles into three categories. "Extraordinary" foods include soybeans, quinoa, kefir, mahi-mahi, buffalo hot dogs (without pork casings) and umeboshi paste. Merely "average" foods include amazake, agave nectar and spelt. "Trouble" foods to be avoided at all costs include ostrich, emu, cashews, Egg Beaters and eel.
He quickly followed up his original book with The Maker's Diet Daily Reminders, The Maker's Diet Shopper's Guide, The Maker's Diet for Weight Loss and more. It's heartening to see Rubin's emphasis on organic, free-range, fresh and wild, although his enthusiasm for highly saturated coconut oil unnerves some critics.
Ah, but he sells the oil -- for $15.95 per 16-ounce jar -- along with honey and supplements, through his Garden of Life brand. A $50 million company "with the goal of becoming a $100 million company," as Rubin puts it, Garden of Life offers dozens of products including the alleged fat-burner fücoThin® and Goatein®, a goat-milk powder that sells for $49.95 per 440-ounce jar.
Advising people on what to eat is all well and good, especially if you're advising them to go organic, shun processed foods, and increase their intake of fiber, protein, vitamins and minerals. But implying that God wants us to finish the job with a bunch of spendy, and to some extent untested, add-ons is entirely another.
"Jordan Rubin is on a mission to transform the health of God's people one life at a time -- a God-inspired and God-sized mission," we read at the BHI Web site. But Rubin's health-coach cred fails to impress critics such as BellaOnline's nutrition editor Moss Greene, who in a seven-part exposé calls the Maker's Diet "the Faker's Diet," lambasting Rubin's "miracle ingredient," homeostatic soil organisms: basically, bacteria found in dirt. Rubin claims that because they couldn't thoroughly scrub the produce they ate, our ancestors ingested these bacteria, which improved their intestinal health. Garden of Life's Primal Defense Ultra, containing these "soil-based probiotics," sells for $49.95 per 90-capsule jar; the recommended dosage is three capsules a day.
Another vocal critic is Stephen Barrett, a doctor who has spent 20-plus years detailing health fraud through his nonprofit, Quackwatch. Barrett cites the Federal Trade Commission's 2006 complaint against Rubin and Garden of Life for what the FTC called "engaging in unfair acts or practices" in its claims about Primal Defense and other products. In 2004, the FDA made a similar complaint.
"He was making illegal claims," Barrett tells me. "I don't think his degree is worth the paper it's printed on."
Barrett notes that Rubin's naturopathic medical doctor degree (NMD) "is from the People's University of the Americas School of Natural Medicine, a non-accredited school with no campus. His Ph.D is from the Academy of Natural Therapies, a non-accredited correspondence school that the State of Hawaii ordered to close in 2003."
But another Christ-diet promoter is Don Colbert, a board-certified family-practice physician with a degree from Oral Roberts University Medical School. Colbert heads the Divine Wellness Center in Longwood, Florida (Rubin's Garden of Life is also Florida-based), and sparked a media storm with his book What Would Jesus Eat? The Ultimate Program for Eating Well, Feeling Great, and Living Longer(Thomas Nelson, 2002).
"Did Jesus actually teach anything about nutrition or how we should eat? My contention is that He did, not necessarily by what He said, but by what He did," Colbert writes. "The medical and scientific facts confirm it. If we eat as Jesus ate, we will be healthier."
Reasonably enough, he explains that Jesus consumed no "fried chicken, fried country ham, fried potatoes, fried onions," no white bread, no Splenda. Blaming the spread of fast-food chains for a global health catastrophe of which Christ would not approve, Colbert avows: "Let me assure you, Jesus did not eat processed foods, too much sugar, or food additives. ... Ask yourself these two questions about everything you eat today: 1. Why do I eat this? 2. Would Jesus eat this? ... What He did eat was a diet based upon biblical principles that were focused on health and wholeness for the whole body."
As a practicing Jew, Jesus -- if he existed, which Colbert believes he did -- followed the Levitical laws of kashrut: plants, grains, dairy foods, certain birds, only finned-and-scaled fish, and only cud-chewing, cloven-hoofed, four-legged ruminants drained of their blood during ritual slaughter.
Modern scholars say the prohibitions in Leviticus are presciently scientific. In biblical times, when sanitation and medicine were sparse and primitive, sharp observers noticed that eating certain creatures made more people sicker than eating other ones. "Unclean" animals were mainly those that fed on carrion and decaying matter. While these species sported highly specialized digestive tracts containing bacteria to neutralize the toxins, limited biblical-era sanitation would have meant that humans eating carrion-feeders ingested the toxins and got sick. This is no longer an issue in the industrialized world.
"Jesus ate a great many fruits and vegetables" and never mixed dairy with meat, Colbert tells us. "He did not eat animal fat. ... We can follow His example by choosing to eat whole-grain breads and pastas."
Wanna eat whole-wheat fettuccini with Jesus? Colbert's cool advice continues as he explains that "God's initial plan was for man to be a vegetarian." Genesis 1:29, after all, has God saying: "I have given you every herb that yields seeds ... and every tree whose fruit yields seeds; to you it shall be for food." Thus ensued humankind's "vegetarian period," which lasted "from Adam to Noah," in which people "lived very long lives. Adam lived 930 years, Seth 912 years, Enos 905 years, Jared 962 years, and Methuselah 969." Why? "Some speculate that the oxygen of the earth was much greater at the time before the Flood. ... Some speculate that there was a moisture barrier around the earth that resulted in a higher barometric pressure." Antediluvian folks also possibly had more access to phytonutrients, the doctor adds.
"We can follow His example by adding more fish to our diet," writes this author of The Bible Cure for Weight Loss and Muscle Gain, The Bible Cure for High Blood Pressure, The Bible Cure for Prostate Disorders, The Bible Cure for Depression and Anxiety, The Bible Cure for Irritable Bowel Syndrome, The Bible Cure for AllergiesandThe Bible Cure for Candida and Yeast Infections, "and by taking fish oil supplements."
And hark: He sells those supplements. Colbert's Divine Health brand offers 270 fish-oil capsules for $49.99. Other Divine Health products include a 300-capsule, $184.99 bottle of the soy extract polyenylphosphatidylcholine, which Quackwatch's Stephen Barrett declares has "no proven value." Examining the label of Divine Health's 60-capsule, $29.99 bottle of the hormone 7-Keto DHEA, Barrett remarks that the product is "said to enhance the immune system and memory. I don't believe that."
And the Lord saith "Sell" as well at Hallelujah Acres, a North Carolina-based farm, ministry, supplement company, seminar center, office complex, restaurant, health-food emporium, "healthy-living housing development" and online empire founded in 1992 by the Rev. George Malkmus, who opened another center in Canada in 1998 and whose many programs include "60 Days to a Hallelujah Waistline."
Having become a Christian during his early 20s at a Billy Graham rally in Madison Square Garden in 1957, Malkmus claims he cured himself some 20 years later of colon cancer -- featuring a "baseball-sized tumor" -- by adopting a diet based on Genesis 1:29, which he trademarked as the Hallelujah Diet: 100 percent vegan, 85 percent raw, and supplemented by Hallelujah Acres BarleyMax, a powdered barley-leaf and alfalfa-juice compound selling for $39.95 per 8.5-ounce jar.
"The Hallelujah Diet is based on the physical nourishment as intended from our Provider," we read at the Hallelujah Acres Web site. And: "The Hallelujah Diet has helped relieve the symptoms of acid reflux, obesity, cancer and more." The site proffers recipes for yummy-looking smoothies, raw soups, nut patties, shredded-vegetable "spaghetti" and such entrees as "Oriental rice," along with hundreds of testimonials such as these:
"During the first MONTH on the diet my night blindness disappeared, my ten-year chronic sinus condition completely cleared up, my fibromyalgia disappeared, no more heartburn, and all my arthritis pains simply vanished."
"My cancer was set at stage 1-C, with CA 125 blood test level of 500 (Normal is 35). When I had the blood test again at the end of October, just four weeks after changing my diet, the count was down to 22! HALLELUJAH! and I have lost 50 pounds, an added blessing."
"In just 21 days, I LOST 14 POUNDS and FEEL GREAT. I have also been able to COME OFF MY ASTHMA and ALLERGY MEDICATIONS."
Malkmus, who used to host the "America Needs Christ" radio show and claims that well over a million people have adopted the diet, "is a very eloquent speaker who is capable of inspiring people who trust what he says. ... I do not believe he is trustworthy," asserts Quackwatch's Barrett.
"You can find lots of words in religious writings that suggest a lot of things," Barrett tells me, "and I don't think any one of them is necessarily more determinant than others." Barrett has nothing against veganism, but companies such as Hallelujah Acres "are selling dietary supplements that may or may not be rational to use, and they encourage people to waste a lot of money on supplements they don't need."
He isn't even totally convinced that Malkmus's original claim is true. "Whether Malkmus actually had cancer is not clear. In a local newspaper report that was published in 1998, Malkmus admitted that he never consulted a cancer specialist for diagnosis but had relied on nutritionists and chiropractors."
Christian critics assail Malkmus for cherrypicking Genesis 1:29 while ignoring Genesis 9:3, in which God expands the allowable edibles to include flesh: "Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you."
"The whole idea that a biblical diet is a vegetarian or vegan diet is just not true," says the Rev. Rayner Hesse, an Episcopal priest and the co-author, with Anthony Chiffolo, of Cooking With the Bible (Greenwood, 2006). To research their book, which examines 18 meals mentioned in the Old and New Testaments and shows how to prepare them today, the pair studied not just the Bible and Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic dictionaries but also food history and geography.
"The stories in the Bible range over a thousand years in time and their settings extend from Egypt to Persia and north. Learning which foods were available in those times and places and learning the ways in which these foods were prepared helps you understand and appreciate the stories," says Chiffolo, whose other books include Advent and Christmas with the Saints, 100 Names of Mary and At Prayer with the Saints.
"In some cases, the Bible tells us word for word what was eaten," Hesse adds. For example, in the Old Testament tale of Abraham and Sarah rushing to entertain three unexpected visitors (who turn out to be angels), Abraham orders a servant to cook a calf freshly seized from his herd. Given the culinary technologies available near what is now Hebron circa 1500 BCE, "the only way it would be possible to kill a calf and have it ready for dinner within the story's time-span would be to shishkebab it," Hesse says.
"What did Jesus eat? We know for sure he ate fish," offers Chiffolo. Then as now, "What people ate was determined by social stratifications and income levels. People with lots of money would have had meat or fish every day. People who didn't have money might have had fish or eggs once a week."
"Jesus was lower-middle-class," Hesse says. "So his meals would have been pretty sparse and very, very basic: fish occasionally, meat very rarely, and whatever could be grown in a home garden." Because fresh water was largely non-potable, he and his companions would have drunk wine instead, and eaten dates and raisins for dessert.
"I don't think people would have been obese in Jesus' crowd," Hesse says.
Kitty Morse agrees. During an Anglican Easter sermon at a Casablanca church in her native Morocco, "The realization suddenly struck me: Jesus and the disciples dined à la marocaine."
"The Last Supper" by Leonardo da Vinci "created a misconception that persists to this day, by portraying the celebrants seated on chairs along one side of an elegant, linen-covered banquet table" -- when the meal, if it actually happened, would have taken place in a humble house, its diners eating and drinking from communal vessels while reclining on the floor.
In A Biblical Feast (Ten Speed, 1998), Morse details the era's diet -- short on flesh but big on "fruits, nuts, vegetables and legumes: olives, grapes, pomegranates, figs, dates, melons, almonds, walnuts, pistachios, cucumbers, onions, garlic, leeks, lentils, fava beans and garbanzo beans -- all staples of today's Mediterranean cuisines," as are the spelt, pickles, garlic, yogurt and other Middle Eastern essentials she grew up eating.
"Only eighty-four ingredients are mentioned in the Old and New Testaments," she tells me. "Cumin is mentioned. Sesame is not. There is some vague reference to chicken." Salt, mined from the earth, was the standard seasoning; others such as cinnamon and mace, brought from Asia via trade routes, were prohibitively expensive. The fish in the Sea of Galilee -- "Saint Peter's fish" -- were tilapia.
Compared to what's available in 21st-century American strip malls, this was indeed a purer, healthier cuisine. But was it that way because the lentil-scarfing masses cared about their health and feared God's wrath or because they were prisoners of their own time and could neither find nor afford anything else? Were Christ alive today, would he eat Quarter Pounders? McDonald's keeps kosher in Israel.
"White flour was very expensive in biblical times," Morse points out. Bakers milled chickpeas and other pulses into powders that they added to whole wheat, barley and millet flour as filler -- thus increasing their breads' protein content, albeit inadvertently. Because olives were ubiquitous, high-antioxidant olive oil happened to be the cheap everyday fat. Folks ate fruit -- usually raw and fresh -- because they'd never heard of, much less tasted, cane sugar.
But hey: If believing that God wants them to ditch the Krispy Kremes is the only way some of our fattest fellow Americans can be convinced to shape up, then why not? More power to those who promote healthy diets to those who might never otherwise touch hippie chow with 10-foot poles. But what would God say about supplements? On a mountaintop yesterday, I think I heard Him proclaim: Save money! Buy them at Walgreens!