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Religion as a Social Determinant of Public Health$

Ellen L. Idler

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9780199362202

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2014

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199362202.001.0001

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Vegetarianism in Seventh-day Adventism

Vegetarianism in Seventh-day Adventism

(p.49) 5 Vegetarianism in Seventh-day Adventism
Religion as a Social Determinant of Public Health

George H. Grant

Jose Montenegro

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter describes Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) religious practice of vegetarianism, a feature of daily life in this Christian community. The SDA Church is global, and a vegetarian or at least semi-vegetarian diet is a central part of its doctrine. At the same time, the inclusion of many cultures in this faith tradition brings great variety to the diet. One of the authors describes typical Hispanic family meals and the special Sabbath meal. The chapter describes how the promotion of health through hygiene, nutrition, and abstention from alcohol, smoking, and drugs were central to the teachings of SDA founder Ellen G. White. The chapter concludes with suggested readings on this practice in religious studies and in public health research.

Keywords:   religious practice, diet, vegetarianism, Seventh-day Adventist, Ellen G. White

THE SEVENTH-DAY ADVENTIST CHURCH (SDA), a Christian faith tradition, is known for its emphasis on physical health and its community-based, spiritually holistic lifestyle. Diet is a particularly important component that often involves traditions of ethnicity, family, and the religious doctrines of the SDA faith. Above all, the commitment to a healthy vegetarian or semivegetarian diet must be seen as a religious practice. Our family table and the food we eat are at the core of a belief system that as Adventists we are physically and spiritually prepared for service to God, to ourselves, to each other, and to the earth.

For devout SDA members, food is a key part of Sabbath celebrations. In the SDA tradition, the Sabbath begins at sunset on Friday and ends at sunset on Saturday. During the Sabbath hours, we rest from all work and make it a special day distinctive from the rest of the week. We assemble as a family an hour before sunset on Friday for worship, songs, games, and a short devotional thought. After we begin the Sabbath, we gather around the table and eat challah bread, some cut fruits, and almond milk. On the next day, we gather with other family members for the main Sabbath meal. The Sabbath lunch varies based on family background and culture. One of us comes from a Hispanic SDA family and our meals on the Sabbath—as every day—typically consist of beans, rice (whole grain or white), meat substitutes, and a good amount of salad. The salads are the favorites at my house; they are made with cucumber, spinach, red radish, romaine lettuce, tomatoes, avocados, and a dressing of extra-virgin olive oil, lemon, and salt. (p.50)

During the week, family meals tend to be less formal, although food choices are still driven by our beliefs. Breakfast usually consists of cereal and granola with almond milk. For dinner, the foods we most enjoy are whole-wheat spaghetti, steamed broccoli, and salad (the salad can be just lettuce and tomato with extra-virgin olive oil, lemon, and salt as dressing); traditional Venezuelan arepas (made from corn flour; my wife adds oatmeal for fiber and protein) are also a favorite. The arepa is a small, circular bread, almost like pita bread, and it is cut open and filled with cheese, lettuce, tomato, and avocado. During the week, we do not have lunch at home because the children are in school and my wife and I are at work. For snacks we have fruits, such as apples, grapes, bananas, oranges, tangerines, and mangos. One of our personal favorite snacks is homemade popcorn with olive oil and salt.

Members of the SDA church are not required to be vegetarian, but it is strongly encouraged. Those who advocate a religious commitment to vegetarianism or semivegetarianism base their argument in the Genesis 9:3–6 account of the period after the great flood, which says that consumption of plants and some animals was permitted during that difficult time, although God’s original plan for the types of food humankind should eat, given in Genesis 1:29, included only nuts, grains, and fruits.1

Individuals are free to decide which path is most appropriate, but most who religiously commit follow a vegetarian diet of some kind. There are several paths to a vegetarian or semivegetarian lifestyle: lacto vegetarianism, lacto-ovo vegetarianism, full veganism, and clean-meat semivegetarianism. The lacto vegetarian consumes plant life and dairy products; lacto-ovo vegetarians consume dairy products and eggs, while vegans will not consume any product derived from animals. Semivegetarians eat dairy products, eggs, and meat that follows kosher restrictions that are very similar to the Jewish tradition. The church follows the guidelines given in the Hebrew scripture book of Leviticus (Lev. 7:19, 23–24; 8:31) for clean and unclean meat. There can be no consumption of unclean meat such as pork, lobster, or shellfish.

The most prominent voice in the origination of the SDA’s health commitment was Ellen G. White (ca. 1860s). White drew upon her knowledge of Hebrew and Christian scripture to offer visions that greatly influenced the religious practice of the SDA: “Let none who profess godliness regard with indifference the health of the body, and flatter themselves that intemperance is no sin, and will not affect their spirituality. A close sympathy exists between the physical and the moral nature.”2 White became known as an advocate for bodily health at a time when hygienic and (p.51) nutritional principles were just beginning to be understood. She wrote and preached a message that evokes the modern phrase “you are what you eat.” If you eat animals, she argued, then your animalistic nature will have to face the consequences of the diseases and other harmful outcomes associated with eating flesh. White’s premise, based on scripture, was that there was only one time on the earth when it was absolutely necessary for humans to consume flesh, and that was after the great flood when plants were struggling to replenish. Her dietary health message was respectful of food availability and region but could generally be understood as vegetarian:

God has furnished man with abundant means for the gratification of an unperverted appetite. He has spread before him the products of the earth, a bountiful variety of food that is palatable to the taste and nutritious to the system. Of these our benevolent heavenly Father says we may freely eat. Fruits, grains, and vegetables, prepared in a simple way, free from spice and grease of all kinds, make, with milk or cream, the most healthful diet. They impart nourishment to the body, and give a power of endurance and a vigor of intellect that are not produced by a stimulating diet.3

These pre-scientific visions were certainly prescient, reflecting many ideas that have come to be accepted as central to the health regimens of today. What has evolved from these original messages has been adapted to the present-day context. For instance, the moderate use of herbs and spices is an accepted food choice for today’s Adventist. However, the influence of White’s teaching is still felt across the tradition.

In fact, various cultural tensions in the international spread of the nutrition message have spurred reassessments of the early diet “counsels.” There are today seventeen million Seventh-day Adventists in virtually every corner of the globe; less than 10 percent live in the United States, where the movement began. The nutritional needs of and the food products available to SDA communities vary from place to place and culture to culture. The SDA church recognizes that in some parts of the world the primary foods available are meats, and rice, beans, or vegetables are difficult to obtain or prohibitively expensive. For some in the SDA (including co-author J. M.), it would be “un-Christian” to require a vegetarian lifestyle for these communities. Nevertheless, even allowing for cultural and regional diversity with regard to vegetarianism, an SDA person abstains from eating unclean meats as well as using tobacco, alcohol, or drugs. (p.52)

The universally accepted recommendation of White is that one should strive for a balanced lifestyle. A person must take into consideration his or her own health and environment. Within the SDA community, there is the belief that the best form of nutrition will be found in what the earth provides for consumption. Overall, one should strive for healthy, moderate eating, or, better yet, seek to eliminate anything that could be harmful to one’s future safety and health, by adopting a vegetarian lifestyle:

Along with adequate exercise and rest, we are to adopt the most healthful diet possible and abstain from the unclean foods identified in the Scriptures. Since alcoholic beverages, tobacco, and the irresponsible use of drugs and narcotics are harmful to our bodies, we are to abstain from them as well. Instead, we are to engage in whatever brings our thoughts and bodies into the discipline of Christ, who desires our wholesomeness, joy, and goodness.4

The health message of the SDA church is much broader than the recommendation of vegetarianism. Health is a product of all aspects of life, including exercise, rest, and participation in a community of worshipers. James Bates, a sea captain and one of the founding fathers of the SDA church, observed on one of his trips that many of the things he put energy and money into, such as alcohol, were things that would not help him secure salvation. He subsequently became engaged in the temperance and abolition movements and began to incorporate the seventh-day Sabbath as his faith practice. His influence, along with that of the younger Ellen White, led to the strong religious commitment to treat the body as a holy sanctuary that is today characteristic of SDA members. The overall concentration on and consciousness of what we put into our bodies is the observance by which SDA members grow closer in their relationship with God in the present and in turn are more prepared for the second coming of God in the future.

The SDA people are diverse in terms of culture, ethnicity, and region, but they share religiously driven commitments to a common health message. The health message is key to the core beliefs of the SDA church, but it is important to remember that Seventh-day Adventism is much more than a simple commitment to a healthy lifestyle; it is a religious faith. The religious underpinnings that encourage and support the people of this faith tradition have often been overlooked in the public attention that has come to the SDA church and its practices. Although the church’s regimens are becoming accepted in the mainstream secular world as fundamental (p.53) components of a healthy lifestyle, for the SDA people, they originated as—and remain—religious practices and expressions of faith.

Editor’s Note

There is substantial research literature on the health of Seventh-day Adventists in the United States and around the world. The Adventist Health Studies, begun at Loma Linda University in the late 1950s, have enrolled more than one hundred thousand Adventists in research on lifestyle and health outcomes. Specific areas of investigation undertaken by these and researchers at other centers include the impact of SDA vegetarianism on mortality from all causes, particularly ischemic heart disease, stroke, and cancers of the prostate, breast, colon, lung, and ovaries; cardiovascular disease risk factors including hypertension and lipids; obesity; respiratory symptoms due to environmental exposure in this nonsmoking population; and the role of SDA hospitals and health professionals in missions around the world. The Adventist Health Studies website (http://www.llu.edu/public-health/health/index.page?) lists more than four hundred publications in scientific journals. The following are some recent examples of such research.

Resources for Public Health Research

Bibliography references:

Beezhold, Bonnie L., Carol S. Johnston, and Deanna R. Daigle. “Vegetarian Diets Are Associated with Healthy Mood States: A Cross–Sectional Study in Seventh-day Adventist Adults.” Nutrition Journal 9 (2010): 26.

Feldbush, Martin W., and Jeffrey T. Mitchell. “A Time for Renewal: A Lessons-Learned Review on the Role of the CISM in Caring for Missionaries after the Rwandan Genocide.” International Journal of Emergency Mental Health 12, no. 1 (2010): 51–56.

Fonnebo, Vinjar. “The Healthy Seventh-day Adventist Lifestyle: What Is the Norwegian Experience?” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 59, no. 5 Suppl. (1994): 1124S–1129S.

Heuch, Ivar, Bjarne Jacobsen, and Gary E. Fraser. “A Cohort Study Found That Earlier and Longer Seventh-day Adventist Church Membership Was Associated with Reduced Male Mortality.” Journal of Clinical Epidemiology 58, no. 1 (2005): 83–91.

Pawlak, Roman, and Marta Sovyanhadi. “Prevalence of Overweight and Obesity among Seventh-day Adventist African American and Caucasian College Students.” Ethnicity & Disease 19, no. 2 (2009): 111–114.

Rouse, I. L., B. K. Armstrong, and L. J. Beilin. “Vegetarian Diet, Lifestyle and Blood Pressure in Two Religious Populations.” Clinical and Experimental Pharmacology and Physiology 9, no. 3 (2007): 327–330.

Willett, Walter. “Lessons from Dietary Studies in Adventists and Questions for the Future.” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 78, no. 3 Suppl. (2003): 539S–543S.

(p.54) Notes

(1) David C. Nieman, The Adventist Healthstyle: Why It Works (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 1992), 59–60

(2) Ellen G. White, Counsels on Diet and Foods (Washington, DC: Review and Herald, 1938), 43.1chapter 2

(3) White, Counsels on Diet and Foods, 92.1chapter 4


(1) David C. Nieman, The Adventist Healthstyle: Why It Works (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 1992), 59–60

(2) Ellen G. White, Counsels on Diet and Foods (Washington, DC: Review and Herald, 1938), 43.1chapter 2

(3) White, Counsels on Diet and Foods, 92.1chapter 4