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Vegetarian Living: Healthy & Good for Religion

Image courtesy: Iyad K. Btaddini, Kfarnabrakh, Chouf, Lebanon.
Kamal Jumblatt, Pythagoras of Samos, Albert Einstein; these individuals each impacted society in different ways, but they all had one thing in common…their dinners! Many famous historical figures and celebrities have adopted plant-based diets, with millions worldwide following suit. If it’s breakfast sausage, chicken dinners, or even a classic Arab cookout, meats have found their way into almost every meal.

Meat consumption worldwide is on the rise, with notable effects on our bodies and the planet. Could plant-based diets be that much better for us? What do religion and science have to say? And is a life without shawarma really worth living? Let us explore these questions further.

In Abrahamic Religion and Philosophy

Eating meat is considered “halal” in the Druze faith, which shares similar customs to those found in Islam. The Qur’an reads in verse 5:1: “Lawful to you is [the flesh of] every beast that feeds on plants,” and similarly in verse 6:145: “I do not find anything forbidden to eat…unless it be carrion [decaying flesh of dead animals]…or the flesh of swine…or a sinful offering over which any name other than God’s has been invoked.” It should be noted that Islamic law does not ordain the overburdening, maltreatment, or baiting for entertainment of any animals according to Al-Adab al-Mufrad, Book 1, Hadith 1232. Furthermore, verse 87 of Surat Al-Ma’idah states, “commit no excess, for Allah loveth not those given to excess.” Another Hadith warns “Do not allow your stomachs to become graveyards.”  Still, has industrialized animal farming and the “Western” diet infringed upon our religious practices?

Interestingly, some of the more devout Druze sheikhs live off simple plant-based diets.

Turning towards the Old Testament of the Christian Bible reveals the importance of compassion towards all living beings of His creation: “Ask the animals, and they will teach you; the birds of the air, and they will tell you;…the fish of the sea will declare to you…In His [the Lord’s] hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of every human being” (Job 12:7-10). Interestingly, God commands Adam and Eve along with all creatures in the Garden of Eden to eat only plant foods (Genesis 1:29-30). The Hebrew prophet Isaiah later declares all will someday again return to vegetarianism through a vision: “Wolf shall dwell with the lamb…lion shall eat straw like the ox…they shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain” (Isaiah 11:6-9).

The Jewish commandment in the Talmud forbids “tsa’ar ba’alei chayim”, interpreted as “causing unnecessary pain to animals”. By contrast, factory farms regularly force animals to live in cramped spaces and inhumane conditions. Neither Judaism or Christianity formally prohibit carnivorous diets, but emerging concern has led some of today’s prolific clergymen and rabbis like Jonathan Wittenberg (Senior Rabbi of Masorti Judaism UK) to encourage plant-based diets.

Delving into esoteric Greek philosophy, Pythagoras was the first to modernize vegetarianism in what came to be known as the Pythagorean Diet, or abstaining from animal flesh. He believed in non-violence and compassion for all creatures to live in peaceful co-existence among humans. This view was echoed by Plato in Book Two of The Republic, who labeled meat as a luxury whose overindulgence would someday lead to an unsustainable society. 

Opposing these views, an excerpt from Aristotle’s Politics concludes that the plant and animal kingdoms exist ultimately for human benefit. While some of history’s greatest thinkers evaluated plant-based diets through contemplation, a more modern-day analysis seeks answers in the laboratories of science.

In Medicine and Science

Most randomized clinical trials and large population studies have focused around plant-based and vegetarian regimes (Mediterranean and DASH diets). Overwhelming evidence has demonstrated their human health benefits. This includes decreased risk of diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, metabolic syndrome, specific cancer subtypes (colon, breast, and prostate), depression, and all-cause mortality (i.e. longer lifespan). The current USDA dietary recommendation for meats, poultry, and eggs at the 2,000-calorie level is a combined 26 oz per week (higher for young males and certain population groups). 

Strong evidence reported by the World Health Organization encourages lean meats and poultry rather than processed (i.e. bacon, ham, deli, sausage) given higher associated risk for colorectal cancer and heart disease. The American Institute for Cancer Research asserts that eating more than 3.5 servings of red meat per week is enough to increase the risk of death. Note that one serving equals only 3 oz, or about the size of a deck of cards. Moderation is key even though red meat, poultry, seafood, egg and dairy products still provide essential nutrients like protein, vitamin B12, calcium and heme-iron. Animal products carry higher cholesterol content, artificial additives, and leave less room on the plate for nutrient-packed plant foods.

Recent ecological analyses of factory farming practices have further established that excessive modern-day meat production has become environmentally harmful. The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations estimates that 330 million tons of meat were produced worldwide in 2017, with global demand projected to increase 70% by 2050. While rising demand supports farmers, the increased use of resources to support this boom also contributes to climate change, land scarcity, and water pollution. The Centers for Disease Control warns that overuse of antibiotics for livestock growth threatens human medical treatments as more bacteria become resistant to our medicines.

Contrary to popular belief, well-balanced plant-based diets have been proven to offer all essential nutrients and high amounts of fiber. For vegetarians and vegans, eating the right types of foods is important for adequate nutrition. Adding foods like nutritional yeast, spinach, complete protein plant sources (soy, legumes and quinoa) or supplements can ensure proper intake of vitamin B12, iron, and calcium. Interestingly, most omnivores still do not eat diets balanced enough to obtain these nutrients! 

So Why Should We Care?

Reducing animal-product consumption is conducive to a more conscious mind, healthier body, and sustainable environment. One can still be healthy, religious, and eat animal meats, but in significantly greater moderation. For those souls seeking to delve deeper in ethical matters, adopting a vegetarian or vegan diet can offer a more holistically conscious lifestyle. We all have a moral responsibility, especially Druze, to become educated on the consequences of our food preferences.

Making any life changes can be challenging, and not everyone is willing to cut animal products from their diet. Consider making small changes like substituting a few meals per week with vegetarian/vegan options while including more whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables daily. With gradual change, we can make the world a better place and live healthier. Perhaps throughout spiritual and dietary pursuits, the Druze can find yet another reason to love the color green!

Need help getting started? Check out these websites for more detailed health information and high-protein, plant-based sample recipes.

DISCLAIMER:This article is not intended as medical advice. Please consider consulting a physician before making any major changes to your dietary habits.

About Wiaam El Khatib

Wiaam El-Khatib attends Medical School at the Indiana University School of Medicine. He has worked with NASA and is an active writer and researcher. Among his objectives is inspiring other professionals and transforming the lives of patients through an innovative and compassionate approach to medicine.

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