Mark Twain reportedly said, "Don't read health books; you may die of a misprint." Although the great American humorist said this in jest, we should be cautious about whose advice we take on health matters, including diet. The fuel for our bodies is vital to our health. Just as a gasoline engine will suffer damage if we pump diesel fuel into it, our bodies suffer if we consume the wrong fuel.
Few people have considered that the Bible is an authoritative and reliable source of dietary information. However, it conveys numerous principles by command and example. Modern dietary science and research verify that the information it contains is accurate and beneficial—and that's only logical, since God, the designer of our bodies, knows what we should eat.
Benefits of a healthy diet
Other than simply keeping us alive, what benefits should a healthy diet provide?
Perhaps most important, it should fortify our immune system and help protect us against disease. It is common knowledge that a proper diet lowers our risk for many diseases.
It should also enable us to avoid the troublesome weight problems that plague the Western world. "Half of all adults in Europe and 61 percent of Americans are overweight" (University of California, Berkeley, Wellness Letter, November 2001).
The situation is serious enough that the surgeon general of the United States "has declared obesity a national epidemic, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it's fast replacing smoking as public health enemy No. 1" (U.S. News & World Report, July 1). This statement illustrates the magnitude of the risk of being overweight, considering that an estimated 500,000 Americans die annually from tobacco-related diseases.
What are the biblical laws that, if obeyed, would promote good health and combat disease?
Avoid meats the Bible calls "unclean"
The Bible declares some kinds of meat, including pork and shellfish, to be "unclean," meaning they are not meant to be consumed as food (Leviticus 11:4-44). Many don't realize that the dietary laws God gave in this regard still apply. Indeed, it appears likely that God gave these laws because the proscribed meat is simply bad for us, unfit for human consumption.
A common false assumption is that God meant His dietary laws only for ancient Israel, that they constituted part of the Old Covenant and were abolished under the New.
Actually, however, the Bible records commands that make the distinction between clean and unclean animals that predate God's covenant with Israel by nearly 1,000 years—for, as Genesis 7:2 records, God instructed Noah to take onto the ark seven pairs of clean animals and one pair of unclean. When God instructed Noah, Noah didn't need to ask God which were clean or unclean because he already knew. Indeed, it seems probable that when God created the animals in Genesis 1 He designated them either clean or unclean from that time forward.
For a thorough explanation of this subject, as well as a listing of animals the Bible defines as clean and unclean, we invite you to request our free booklet Clean and Unclean Meats: What Does the Bible Teach? This publication thoroughly discusses many biblical passages on the subject, including those that people mistakenly believe give us permission to eat the flesh of any animal. It also discusses health dangers associated with eating unclean creatures, backed by statements from doctors and nutritionists. (See also "Did Jesus Make All Meats Clean?," )
Eat a balanced diet of clean meats
God created certain meats for human consumption (Leviticus 11:2). Red meat—such as lamb or beef—is high in nutritional value and beneficial for health. But the biblical example is to eat red meat sparingly; often it was served only at feasts or other special occasions.
"It is very likely that Jesus ate beef since we know that many people celebrated His presence in their homes, and we know from Scripture that He attended weddings, where beef was often included as a feast food. Beef consumption, however, would not have been a daily or weekly practice ..." (Don Colbert, M.D., What Would Jesus Eat?, 2002, p. 48).
If you need to reduce your red-meat consumption, you can supplement your diet with more fowl and fish. "During the time of Jesus ... domestic fowl such as chickens, geese, pigeons, partridges, duck and quail [were consumed]" (Colbert, p. 66).
"On the shores of the Sea of Galilee, fish was a common article of food in the days of Jesus" (Fred Wight, Manners and Customs of Bible Lands, 1983, p. 51). Several of Jesus' disciples were former fishermen, and Jesus Himself ate fish (Luke 24:42).
Current research demonstrates that fish and fowl are especially healthy foods. The Wellness Encyclopedia notes that "a small portion (three to four ounces of cooked poultry without bones or skin) provides about half the daily adult protein requirement and has half to one-third the calories and fat of a similar portion of steak. Poultry is also a good source of B vitamins ..."
It adds: "Like meat and poultry, fish is an excellent source of protein ... relatively low in calories, fat and cholesterol ... Fish also supply certain vitamins ... Moreover, fish fat contains a special group of polyunsaturated fatty acids known as omega-3s. Research has shown that omega-3s can protect against heart disease" (University of California, 1991, pp. 185, 189-190).
Don't eat animal fat or blood
The Bible tells us not to consume animal fat and blood (Leviticus 3:17). Scientists now realize that a direct cause-and-effect relationship exists between excess consumption of fat and heart disease. "Over 53 percent of people in large industrialized countries die of heart disease. Heart disease is most commonly caused by fat deposits that build up in the arteries, often beginning in the teenage years" (Reginald Cherry, M.D., The Bible Cure, 1998, p. 34).
But that is not the only hazard associated with eating animal fat. Toxins also tend to concentrate in an animal's fat. While most of the fat in lean, range-fattened clean animals is isolated from the meat and easily trimmed away, "the toxins in pork are held especially in the fat, which is not isolated from the meat as can be the case in lean beef, but rather, it is dispersed throughout the meat" (Colbert, p. 50).
There are also important reasons to abstain from blood. "Scientists have long known that blood carries infections and toxins that circulate in an animal's body. If people eat animal blood, they are needlessly exposed to these infections and toxins" (Rex Russell, M.D., What the Bible Says About Healthy Living, 1996, p. 14).
Limit fat consumption
Our bodies require some fat to be healthy. Nutritionists generally recommend that we ingest no more than 30 percent of our calories from fat. Some sources of fat are healthier than others. The best sources include fish and unsaturated plant-based fat. Fat from olives is among the healthiest plant-based fats. God supplied His people with this in abundance in that He placed them in a "land of olive oil" (Deuteronomy 8:8).
A modern example that indicates olive oil is healthy for food is the dietary habits of the inhabitants of the Greek island of Crete. "Residents of Crete consume more olive oil per person than any other nation ... In a fifteen-year period, 38 out of 10,000 Cretans died of heart disease, as compared to 773 out of 10,000 Americans" (Colbert, p. 118).
To realize the maximum benefits from consuming olive oil, it should be "extra virgin or virgin olive oil. If a bottle of olive oil is not labeled 'extra virgin' or 'virgin,' then the oil has been refined in some way" (Colbert, p. 116).
Oils that are beneficial also include canola, safflower and sunflower. Nutritionists frequently exhort us to raise our HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol, the "good" kind. "If raising your HDL is a primary concern, you should replace saturated fats (found in meats, whole milk, and cheese, as well as coconut oil) with either polyunsaturated fats (as in sunflower and safflower oil), or, even better, monounsaturated fats (as in olive and canola oil). This will lower both total cholesterol and LDL [low-density lipoprotein], and maintain HDL or boost it slightly" (Wellness Letter, December 2001).
Be aware that many commercially sold oils are subjected to a hydrogenation process before marketing. When the oils are hydrogenated, their beneficial effects are largely nullified. "Depending on the degree of hydrogenation, these artificially saturated vegetable fats are no better for you than comparably saturated animal fats" (The Wellness Encyclopedia, p. 95). Because baked products sold in stores generally contain hydrogenated fats, they should be consumed in moderation.
Are the fats in dairy products healthy for us? They constituted part of the biblical diet (Genesis 18:8; 1 Samuel 17:18) and are beneficial if eaten sparingly. Butter, in moderation, is an acceptable source of fat. "Recent studies reported by Dr. Matthew Gillman of Harvard Medical School ... confirm that heart patients who ate margarine had twice as many heart attacks as those who ate
butter" (Russell, p. 68).
Cheese is high in protein and loaded with calcium but contains a lot of fat. It can be safely consumed in moderation, though many overdo it. "Cheese is the leading source of artery-clogging fat in the U.S. diet, according to a report from the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The average American is eating three times as much cheese today as 30 years ago—on pizza, pasta, burgers, sandwiches, and even salads" (Wellness Letter, May 2001).
Eat whole grains
Bread, made from wheat, barley or millet, was the staple diet item in Bible times. "Bread was of such importance that the expression 'eat bread and drink water' could be used to signify eating and drinking as a whole" ("Bread," The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, 1962).
The importance of bread in the biblical diet is illustrated by Jesus when He said He was the bread of life (John 6:35, 48). Just as Christ is essential for salvation (Acts 4:12), whole-grain products are essential to healthy eating.
"Eat ... six or more servings of grains or legumes, daily. Whole grains are especially nutritious. These foods will help you obtain the 20 to 30 grams of dietary fiber you need each day and will provide most of the important vitamins and minerals" (John Swartzberg, M.D., and Sheldon Margen, M.D.,The Complete Home Wellness Handbook, 2001, p. 18).
One caution, however, concerns hybrid grains. Many of today's hybrids, including wheat, contain a greatly reduced percentage of protein and an excessive percentage of carbohydrates compared with the nonhybrid grains in use during the biblical era. Nonhybrid grains tend to be far more nutritionally balanced than are most hybrid grains.
Grain products also typically undergo major changes in their journey from the field to the grocer's shelf. For example, wheat is generally processed into white flour. The result? "Both the bran and the germ have been removed, along with approximately 80 percent of the wheat's nutrients" (Colbert, p. 31). What about commercially produced breakfast cereals? They "usually have more than 50 percent of their calories in sugar and very little to no fiber" (p. 30).
The average Western diet lacks adequate fiber. "Though not a source of calories, vitamins or minerals, it contributes to health in several ways, and deficiency of it in the ordinary diet is a significant nutritional problem in our societies" (Andrew Weil, M.D., Eating Well for Optimum Health, 2000, p. 136).
A biblical dietary comparison
Fruits and vegetables, along with whole grains, constituted the bulk of the biblical diet. "Everywhere the Hebrew people traveled, they included vegetables in their diet" (James Packer, Merrill Tenney and William White Jr., editors, The Bible Almanac, 1980, p. 247). The vegetables included leeks, onions, garlic and cucumbers.
"The various fruits mentioned in the Bible show ... the Israelites' ingenuity in growing, harvesting, and preparing them for use. Fruits were eaten fresh, dried, pressed into cakes, and squeezed for juice" (ibid., p. 254). Fruits mentioned include apples, figs, grapes, berries, apricots, melons and pomegranates.
Grapes were particularly popular. "The Bible has more references to grapes and grapevines than to any other fruit and plant except olives and olive trees ... Grapes are the first cultivated plant mentioned in the Bible ... Grapes have been shown to fight tooth decay and to stop viruses, and they are high in caffeic acid, a substance shown to be a strong cancerous fighting agent" (Colbert, pp. 146-147).
Adding more of these fruits and vegetables to your diet in place of other foods will supply a wealth of nutrition and also help with weight control. "Fruits and veggies come loaded with complex carbohydrates and other essentials for life, such as amino acids and essential fatty acids. They also include many of the natural vitamins and minerals vital to human nutrition ... Fruits and vegetables also have both soluble and insoluble fiber that allows our bodies to select what nutrients are needed. This fiber allows many unneeded calories to pass through the intestinal tract" (Russell, p. 90). As this occurs, superfluous calories are eliminated rather than added as body fat.
"A diet consisting predominantly of fruits and vegetables is the most important factor currently identified in the prevention of cancer ... The evidence for this is overwhelming: Study after study has confirmed that people who have the highest intakes of fruits and vegetables have the lowest rates of cancer" (Swartzberg and Margen, p. 16).
Fruits and vegetables may even help prevent Alzheimer's disease. "A new study ... says a diet rich in fruits and vegetables and less red meat may ward off the degenerative brain disease, which affects 12 million worldwide" (U.S. News & World Report, July 29).
Eating fruit as a substitute for calorie-laden desserts aids weight loss. The natural sugar in fruit is nutritionally superior to processed sugars, which are major contributors to overweight. "In the United States, sugar intake has increased from 1 percent to 20 percent of total calories during the last 200 years ... The average American consumes 150 pounds of refined sugar a year" (Russell, p. 88).
A large part of that sugar intake comes through soft drinks. "Americans, on average, drink 53 gallons of soda [carbonated soft drinks] per year—40 percent more than they drank two decades ago" (Harvard Health Letter, February 2001).
Eating habits and your health
Proper eating habits are necessary for good health. If we stuff our bodies with food lacking in nutrition, we will eventually pay the price.
Sadly, in many cultures it isn't easy to select the foods that are best for us. In America, "of the more than 11,000 new food products that came on the market in 1998, more than two-thirds were candy, snacks, baked goods, soft drinks, ice creams and similar items" (Wellness Letter, June 2002).
Once these products are in the stores, advertisers crank up the propaganda. For example, "the food industry spends some $30 billion a year on advertising. By contrast the entire federal budget for nutritional education equals one fifth the advertising costs for Altoids mints" (U.S. News & World Report, July 1).
How great is the health risk if you are overweight? "Avoiding weight gain may guard against cancer of the colon, kidney, uterus, and breast. Being overweight and/or sedentary also increases the risk of heart disease and diabetes" (Wellness Letter, November 2001).
Major strides have been made in the last century in increased life expectancy. "At the start of the new millennium, the World Health Organization states that at least 120 countries ... have a life expectancy at birth of more than sixty years. The global average life expectancy has increased to sixty-six years, compared with only forty-eight years in 1955" (Bradley Wilcox, M.D., Craig Wilcox, Ph.D., and Makoto Suzuki, M.D., The Okinawa Program, p. 327).
One reason for this is that many of the major killers of the past are largely under control. For example, in America "deaths from infectious diseases have been decreased by 93 percent," and "infant mortality has dropped by 93 percent" (Parade Magazine, March 19, 2000).
Though our life expectancy is much greater now, we need to be concerned about health expectancy. The food we put into our mouths will partially determine not only how long we live but whether we enjoy the wonderful benefits of good health in the time we have. GN