Religion and food
Many of the features that shape dietary habits are derived from religious laws. All over the world many people choose to eat or avoid certain foods according to their religious beliefs. When a dietary practice is preserved by religious dogma it is given additional force. Dietary differences linked to religion should be considered when planning a balanced diet. While not all religions have specific guidance regarding food, here are some of the major religions and a brief look at how they impact eating habits:
Buddhism considers living beings to be sacred, a belief that has translated into widely practiced vegetarianism and veganism. Violence towards animals is considered to translate into human aggression; hence most Buddhists will keep to the principle of ahimsa (non-violence or harmlessness) and avoid all foods related to processes where harm was done. Some Buddhists avoid meat and dairy products while others avoid only meat. Buddhists also avoid the consumption of alcohol. Monks of this religion fast in the afternoon and rely on ‘alms’ or donations of food as they, along with Buddhist nuns, are not allowed to cultivate, store or cook their own food.
Food regulations differ from one Christian denomination or group to another, with some groups not observing any restrictions at all. Some fasting days are observed by Catholic and Orthodox Christians on certain days such as Good Friday or during Lent. In earlier centuries, meat and dairy products were avoided during a substantial portion of the year, but today it often just means eating fish on a Friday. The ritual of consuming bread and wine (Holy Communion or the Eucharist) is regularly celebrated but its symbolic or actual meaning in relation to the body and blood of Jesus Christ depends on the denomination.
Hinduism is one of the most ancient religions in the world and, although meat was not originally prohibited, many Hindus today regard vegetarianism as a way to maintain the respect observed for life. Hinduism is characterized by the avoidance of the killing of any animal, the cleansing of those involved in food preparation, which is a reflection on previously existing caste-restricted practices, and the symbolism of certain foods. The cow is held in high regard as a symbol of abundance and so it is not eaten by Hindus, yet products such as milk, butter and yogurt may be eaten. Some Hindus fast on selected days as a mark of respect to certain gods.
The main food practices in Islam involve specific ritual slaughtering procedures for animals of consumption (haram practices), fasting during the month of Ramadan, the avoidance of pork and of intoxicating liquor. Foods are categorised as halal (those than may be eaten) and haram (those that should be avoided), as are other aspects of life. Most foods are halal while the list of haram foods includes pork, alcohol and any products that may contain emulsifiers made from animal fats (such as gelatines and margarines). Bread and bread products fermented by yeast may contain traces of alcohol and in some cases may be considered haram. Moderation in all things, including eating and dietary habits, are an integral part of Islam.
Most Rastafarians are vegetarian or vegan. Foods that may be consumed by people practicing this religion are called ital; these foods are characterised by having no artificial colours, flavours or preservatives, hence being considered pure or natural. Rastafarians also avoid the consumption of alcohol and in some cases also tea, coffee and other caffeinated drinks as it is considered that these foods confuse the soul.
In this religion foods are divided into kosher (allowed) or trefa (forbidden). Characteristics of kosher foods include animals that have a completely split hoof and chew cud (such as cows, goats and sheep), while kosher fish must have fins and scales. In general all plant foods are kosher. In addition, a specific slaughtering process must be followed for meat to be considered kosher. Meat and dairy products must not be prepared, stored or eaten together and certain fasting days are observed (especially Yom Kippur). During the celebration of Passover, food helps to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt.
Food selection is due to different reasons, with religion being one of the strongest principles on which diets are based. Sacred space and time (altars, shrines, feast and fasting days), as well as symbolism and myth (what foods represent or the stories they recall) are all part of religious rituals linked to food. Regardless of religious views, it is important to follow a balanced diet and favourable lifestyle for optimum health.
Food culture and religion. The Better Health Channel. Available from: www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au (accessed 15.11.12)
Religion and food choices. Food - a fact of life. Powerpoint presentation available from: www.foodafactoflife.org.uk (accessed 15.11.12)