HOLIER THAN THOU
From Locusts to Leper Pus, Battle of the Biblical Diets
Is Chris Pratt's 'Daniel diet' really the most biblical diet?
Newly engaged Guardians of the Galaxy star Chris Pratt is apparently going through a 21-day period of prayer and fasting inspired by the Bible. Pratt, whose engagement announcement expressed a desire to “proudly live boldly in faith” with his new love, is clearly a Christian who is trying to deepen his faith. The question is, what does a Bible-based diet look like?
Pratt’s diet is a 21-day program known as the Daniel Fast. The practice is a partial fast when some foods are consumed while others are shunned or restricted. Most participants follow the fast for a period of three weeks. During this time, the dieter can only drink water and consume foods that have grown from seeds (fruits, vegetables and grains). The program is named after the prophet Daniel, who fasted on two occasions in the Hebrew Bible. Daniel 10:3 reads, “I had eaten no rich food, no meat or wine had entered my mouth and I had not anointed myself at all, for the full three weeks.” (There’s no update on whether Pratt, like Daniel, will eschew personal grooming habits).
The Daniel diet is popular with evangelical Protestants, who use it to kick-start New Year’s resolutions and lose weight (in a faithful way). The 20,000 strong Saddleback Church, along with its pastor Rick Warren, promotes a version of the diet called “The Daniel Plan.” Warren was inspired to develop the plan when he noticed many new members undergoing baptism were overweight. There’s some scientific evidence to back up his claim. Two studies in 2003 and 2006 revealed that those affiliated with conservative Protestantism are more likely to have a higher BMI than members of other religious groups.
It’s interesting, though not entirely surprising, that Christians are selecting Daniel as their diet guru. After all, Daniel’s “fast” only lasts for three weeks and is relatively approachable for those on a Western diet. Imagine if Pratt had picked the John the Baptist regime and lived on a diet of wild honey and locusts (Mark 1:6)? The Daniel diet, by comparison, resembles programs like the Whole30 that are already popular this time of year. And there are products in the marketplace that cater to the biblically-minded. Ezekiel bread, the sprouted grain bread that is a favorite with nutritionists and whole foods advocates (full disclosure: I’m a fan), is not only named after a Bible verse, it has Ezekiel 4:9 printed on the packaging.
Of course neither Rick Warren nor Chris Pratt are the first people to try eating biblically. While we may think of religion as primarily about prayers, services, regulations, and reading, fasting (and dietary regulations in general) are a central component of many religious and philosophical traditions. From Eucharist services to Passover meals, what you eat is a component of religion. It’s just a very rigid Christianocentric definition of religion that makes us think it’s not.
In the Bible the earliest people were vegan. According to Genesis, God gave Adam and Eve plants, seeds, and the fruit of trees to eat. They essentially ate a locally sourced plant-based diet. It was only after the Flood (Genesis 6-9) that the swarmy things of creation appear on the menu (Genesis 9:3). This moment, however, is a concession to human failure: it’s only after the near-destruction of humanity that we are allowed to eat meat. Ideally, if we were still in Paradise, we’d still be vegan. Humans weren’t teetotallers after their fall from grace either. After the Flood, Noah, now a vineyard owner, used to get drunk and naked in his tent (Genesis 9:20-23).
Over the course of the Hebrew Bible, the regulations regarded what is and is not permissible to eat grew much more exacting. The book of Leviticus details with great specificity the kinds of animals that are off-limits. Most famously pork and shellfish, but also rabbits, camels, ostrich, crocodiles, and non-jumping winged insects. Most ancient Jews, including Jesus, of course, lived predominantly on the classical iteration of the Mediterranean diet (which FYI has some excellent scientific support to back it up).
But then there is the practice of fasting, which is somewhat different and usually involved abstaining from food for set periods of time. As a religious practice fasting is supposed to focus the attention on God to the detriment of the body. It wasn’t exclusively a Jewish practice, either. Almost every religion (except Zoroastrianism) promotes fasting as a form of penitence, self-control, or cleansing process at some point in the year. A number of Christian denominations fast during Lent; Jews fast on Yom Kippur; Muslims during daylight hours of Ramadan, and so on.
Ancient medics used fasting to regulate health: Hippocrates wrote that to eat when you are sick is to feed the sickness and the Roman era moralist Plutarch recommended that instead of medicine people should fast for a day. The Renaissance doctor Paracelsus actually called fasting “the physician within.” Medieval women, as Caroline Walker Bynum wrote in her book Holy Feast Holy Fast, had a particular proclivity for fasting as a religious practice. The 14th century anchorite mystic Julian of Norwich used fasting as a means of communicating with Christ. Catherine of Siena renounced food almost entirely and lived on a diet of consecrated Eucharistic bread and pus oozing from the bodies of lepers (an image capable of suppressing the appetite of even the most dedicated glutton). Devotees of the 5:2 diet should feel that they have some religious support, as well, but know that for Julian and Catherine fasting was about God, not weight loss.
The renewed interest in Daniel and his fast is undoubtedly tied to the fact that it is temporary, relatively compatible with modern Western diets, and masculinized by its association with a lion-taming prophet. Daniel doesn’t seem “girly” or “soft” for fasting, he is someone who (according to the Bible) stood up to immoral tyrants. This mystique, coupled with the fact that the diet only lasts for three weeks makes him an approachable model for the 21st century Christian.
The irony is that none of these diets are actually about weight loss, they’re about a person’s relationship to God. And if you really want to eat biblically, you probably have to change your diet for longer than 21 days.