Lecture 7: Religious and Philosophical Trends in Vegetarian Nutrition

Required: You're off the hook! Lecture notes will suffice!
Recommended: if possible, visit a religious site, such as a Buddhist or Hindu temple, a mosque or other agencies, such as a Seventh Day Adventist hospital or a kosher nursing home - to get a feel for the intermingling of religion and food.

By the end of this lecture, the student should be able to:
1. Cite various reasons for the historical development of vegetarianism
2. Explain various religions' philosophy on vegetarianism

Long Ago
Food has been a topic of discussion since, well, since humans began to eat. Food has been connected with holiness, spirituality, sexuality, taboos and even life and death since the beginning of time. Food has always been used to reward, to control, to punish (doubt this? watch a three-year old child trying to wade through some Brussel sprouts), to cajole, and to celebrate.

Even the earliest religions used food to reward and had taboos against the eating of certain foods at certain times of the year or my certain people. Which foods were allowed, when they were to be eaten, who was allowed to eat them, etc. has been a topic of discussion over the centuries. Even today, food preferences may be dictated by the religion one chooses to follow.

Remember, I'm a nutritionist, not a philosophy professor, and I don't pretend to have studied religion and philosophy in great depth. Much of my knowledge comes from having patients (when I practiced as a dietitian) and students who had eating patterns dictated by their religion. We would have discussions and I would read up on the various topics.

For example, when I was teaching in Thailand (in Phuket, in the south and in Bangkok), my students were varying degrees of Buddhist, including several monks and nuns. The monks and nuns ate their vegetarian meals very early in the morning, and then did not eat anything of significance again for the rest of the day (fluids were okay). It was explained to me that, in order to become more spiritual, people had to think less of their physical needs. This is similar to many other religions, that require some form of fasting on special holy days. The fasting was not viewed as a punishment or deprivation, but as a way to focus on the spiritual, not the physical.

Most of the religions of which I am aware seem to exclude the eating of animal products, at least some of the time. Remember when Christians did not eat meat on Fridays or gave up eating meat for Lent? During certain times of the Moslem and Jewish calendar, eating vegetarian (actually, refraining from eating meat) was considered to be very virtuous. Some orthodox followers of the Jain religion wear face masks, so that they don't inhale microorganisms. This is to do as little killing as possible, not to avoid disease. They may also drink only distilled water, as it has the least possibility of supporting any life forms.

There are many more examples. The point is, most organized religions tend to lean towards at least partial vegetarianism for their followers. Is it for control or for spirituality? You'll have to do some of your own research and form your own ideas. For more information about the connection between vegetarianism and religion, go to The International Vegetarian Union website at:

All Rolled into One: Religion, Class Status, Economics and Eating Patterns
It would be interesting to figure out which came first, the food shortage or the religious rules which dictated that eating less was more spiritual! Only kidding, although, to some people who have not studied religion too deeply, it may seem this way. Let's look at this a bit.

In India, there are vegetarians by choice and vegetarians by the dictate of economics. Upper-caste Hindus (Brahmins), who consider themselves very spiritual are said never to touch meat, eggs, or fish. Buddhists and Jains are very much against killing, reflecting "ahimsa" or the doctrine of the reverence and concern for all living things. "Ahimsa," translated into many names, is an important precept for many Buddhists, Jains and orthodox Hindus. On the other hand there are many people living in India (and other countries) so poor that, even if they desired it, could not afford to purchase animal products. In Asian countries, many Buddhists are vegetarian and vegan, following the teachings of their religion.

Even within a particular religion, there are different interpretations of vegetarianism. In Sri Lanka, the Tamils, who are Hindu, do not eat any flesh, but will use milk on occasion; the Sinhalese, who are largely Buddhist, usually refrain from eating animal products, but there are some exceptions. And Sri Lankan Muslims exclude certain types of animal products, such as pork, but include others (such as beef).

Even though it is a cattle-growing region, many East Africans are vegetarians, having a diet based largely on grains, legumes, vegetables, fruit and, occasionally dairy. Interestingly, the number of animals one owns gives one a certain status. Animals are more important to the owner when alive.

In modern Egypt, there is still a difference in the diet of the various classes, but generally the Egyptian diet is vegetarian. The wealthier classes may eat meat once or twice a week, but the less wealthy rarely use animal products. Breads are the basis of the diet, from the more costly leavened wheat breads to the much more economical corn bread. Legumes, fruit, onions, tomatoes, greens, nuts and juices are daily ingredients.

The Albanian diet has been largely vegetarian for centuries, as animals were more important for the products they provided (energy for farm work, dung for fuel, etc.). The staple foods include corn, fresh and dried fruit, olives, lemons, figs and oranges. If available, eggs and cheese are eaten on special occasions.

Australia has never been known for its non-meat eating population. However, as more and more vegetarians relocate to Australia, soy and grain crops are becoming more important (and more available). This is the reverse of what is usually seen (and is a very refreshing turn of events for vegetarians). In Australia, a land proud of its animal-for-food raising capabilities, a new economic opportunity to "make money" from vegetarian crops has led to a whole in trend in farming.

Animal Rights the Environment and Vegetarianism
Ah yes, another topic we'll all have to keep level heads about. These are topics for which people have strong feelings. There are many wonderful organizations, such as Friends of Animals, PETA, and Farm Sanctuary, to name a very few that strive to improve the life of animals. I'm going to send you to a web site, as follows: This is the Vegetarian Resource Group's animal rights brochure and it synthesizes much of the animal right's philosophy for you. Explore some sites for yourself. There are links to other vegetarian and animal rights groups at The Physicians' Committee for Responsible Medicine ( has animal rights material, along with vegetarian material for starters.

Animal rights is a big subject in the world today, and is obviously a large concern for vegetarians. Gather information to help you formulate your own opinions and action plans.

How Does Vegetarianism Fit In?
Have you heard of macrobiotics? "Macro" means "large" or "long" and "bio" refers to "life." So, macrobiotics should have something to do with "long life." To understand the origins of macrobiotics, you'll have to do some reading on Buddhism, which is where macrobiotics got its start.

Buddhist monks, striving to live a very spiritual life (remember, this is the short cut version; do some more in-depth reading to really do this subject justice), attempted to divorce themselves from a many physical needs as possible. As far as diet went, it meant eating only what you needed, eating as little as possible, and focusing on eating as little as possible. This generally meant a diet that had to supply lots of nutrients in small packages (and that taxed the body as little as possible).

Macrobiotic diets are not necessarily always vegetarian, although, the most spiritual of Buddhists strive to be completely vegan. After all, how can you be "holy" if you are taking life? Macrobiotic diets are supposed to be very purifying, using simple, fresh ingredients only lightly or delicately prepared.

Macrobiotic diets became very popular among cancer patients several years ago. Why? Well, if your body needs to fight off cancer, it needs all its strength for that fight. If you are eating or drinking things that the body has to fight off also, such as chemical preservatives, hormones found in animal feed, etc., then the body has to divide its resources. If the food you eat helps to strengthen your body, then it may be able to devote all it can to fighting off the cancer. So, what's it gonna be, a diet soda and a burger, or fighting off cancer? A simple example, but pretty illustrative.

Remember, macrobiotics has it basis in Buddhism. Vegetarianism does not only having the backing of selected interest groups, but also has the backing of many religions.

Seventh Day Adventists have as part of their religion the following of vegetarianism. If you happen to be located near a Seventh Day Adventist hospital or school , see if you can visit their food services. They have many vegan products that are used as the "protein" portion of the meal that are very interesting. You can browse the web for some of their products, including, which is the site for Loma Linda University, an Adventist school.

The topic we are trying to cover in this lecture could go on for years and years. Just wanted to introduce some thoughts on some of the origins of vegetarianism. If you are vegetarian, then you probably can add even more background to this. Generally, vegetarians have made a conscious decision to be vegetarians.

Vegetarianism can be political, ethical, religious, environmental in origin, as well as many other causes. We have just glanced at some of them. So, now you have a short background. It's now time to start writing some recipes and menus. See you in Lecture 8.

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Last Updated
January 10, 2000

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The contents of this web site, as with all The Vegetarian Resource Group publications, is not intended to provide personal medical advice. Medical advice should be obtained from a qualified health professional.

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