What Do Religions Say About Dieting?

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As we come up to Lent, the traditional time in the Christian calendar when we prepare for Easter by going without chocolate (just as Jesus did) we thought it might be interesting to set Seamus Hilley loose to see what the world’s religions have to say on the subject of dieting. As it turns out, they have quite a lot to say…


Interestingly, none of the major world religions talk about dieting per se, although they often have strictures about what constitutes healthy eating habits and I’ve looked into them to find some inspiration for those of us with a fight against flab to wage. Because as the scriptures tell us, “a flabby body makes for a flabby soul.” Actually, that’s not in the bible or anything; I just made it up. For clarity, I’d better make my own position clear first; I’m a Catholic. At least, I’m Catholic in the sense that the Catholic Church is the one I don’t go to on Sundays.

Friar Tuck-In

Friar Tuck-In

People think Catholicism is all about guilt and eternal damnation but that’s not strictly true, those are just the bits we enjoy most. Catholics are exhorted to practice moderation in all things and in common with the rest of Christianity we’re taught to regard Gluttony as one of the Seven Deadly Sins. This sounds like a sure-fire recipe for shedding the pounds until you read the small print, for the Bible interprets the concept of gluttony quite widely. It can include taking inordinate pleasure in the consumption of food or stimulating the senses by using spices and seasonings. The sons of the prophet Eli were judged to be guilty of the latter sin and were put to death for their trouble. To be fair, they’d also committed idolatry and fornication, but it was the ketchup did for them in the end.

But if you’re looking for a simple explanation of the Christian take on weight loss you could do worse than follow the advice of Pope Innocent XI who said it was no sin to take pleasure in eating, but a grave defect to eat like beasts for the sole motive of sensual gratification. I’m just relieved His Holiness never had the experience of seeing me in action in a kebab shop after closing time.

You probably didn’t know that the 5:2 diet was mentioned in the Old Testament, but that’s the interpretation at least one media outlet put on the Daniel Fast, a weight-loss plan based on the dietary regime of the prophet Daniel. When Daniel was held captive in Babylon, King Nebuchadnezzar encouraged him to eat the same food he ate himself so he could remain in tip-top condition. However, Daniel turned his nose up at the King’s food, scorned his wine, and subsisted on a regime of vegetables, seeds, unleavened bread, water and intermittent fasting. We’re not told how much weight he lost, but modern experts suggest that strict adherence to the diet could result in blindness, muscle weakness, bone pain and vitamin deficiencies. Nobody told Daniel this, and he went on to survive the lions’ den without a scratch, so what do experts know?

Britain’s fastest growing religion is Islam, and it’s often said to be more a way of life than just a religion. Like Christianity, Islamic teaching emphasises the virtues of moderation and the dangers of eating to excess. The prophet Mohammed said that the worst vessel the sons of Adam ever fill is their bellies, an observation that is just as true today as it was a thousand years ago. He also recommended never allowing your stomach to be more than one third full of food, and presumably he expected that to be achieved by self-discipline and moderation rather than the insertion of a gastric band. Another interesting tip of Mohammed’s is that he was said to only eat with three fingers (the index, thumb and middle fingers). This enforced smaller bites of food, restricted calories and made digestion easier – all good ideas for the man who wants to lose weight.

Buddhism goes one step further in having its own cuisine, with clergy and believers adopting a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle – a diet which neatly side-steps a lot of the problems that cause weight gain. Interestingly, there is one occasion when eating meat is actually compulsory: Buddhist monks and nuns have a duty to eat leftovers given to them, regardless of what they might be, or how they taste. Sounds a bit like growing up in a big Irish family, although I’m sure the monks are never told that if they don’t like it they can bloody well lump it and make their own dinner. Buddhism takes a very different view of fasting than other faiths. Buddha tried fasting over a period of six years but eventually decided it was an abuse of the body and useful only in the short term. So no fasting and focus on long term goals – sounds a pretty good way to diet.

Judaism also has its own cuisine. A lot of Jewish food originates from Eastern Europe and is heavy on fats and carbs, and presents a real problem to the potential Jewish weight-watcher. Perhaps it’s no great surprise then that Judaism also emphasises the virtues of fasting on holy days like Yom Kippur. The prophet Daniel, being an Old Testament figure, makes his appearance once more as an aid to weight loss, though suitably updated and supplemented for health reasons. But Jewish tradition, just like other religions, is full of good advice about eating sensibly and stopping when you feel full.

Are you giving up anything for Lent? If anyone wants to join MAN v FAT editor in his Lent challenge of five minutes of inversions (handstands, headstands, etc) per day then let him know, he’d love some company!


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