Of the many diet-based communities out there, the vegetarian community is one of the largest and most prolific.
Bear with me for a moment, but as a recent graduate with my M.S. in Nutrition and Integrative Health, I’ve spent a lot of time the last couple of years thinking about people’s diets and their relationship to their diets. It seems to me that, for some, subscribing to a particular diet philosophy is akin to subscribing to a specific religious belief.
The correlations run deep—from leaders to sacred texts to ‘true believers’. Blind faith, for example, can defend any effect that a diet may have upon one’s body: feeling ill is simply the body detoxifying, or perhaps the diet wasn’t adhered to strictly enough. Any unfortunate reaction is explained away.
Is there a Church of Vegetarianism?
Let’s look at this from a slightly academic perspective. Are there any similar themes?
Vegetarians have their own charismatic leaders, who tout the benefits they’ve reaped from the diet. Many of these leaders are monks or other spiritual leaders, such as Thich Nhat Hanh and Gandhi, who both preach non-violence.
Some are in the medical field, such as Dr. T. Colin Campbell (the China Study’s analyst) and Charlotte Gerson (her father initiated The Gerson Therapy, an alternative cancer treatment).
Others still are turned into leaders by their successes, such as Mimi Kirk (named PETA’s Sexiest Vegetarian Over 50, at age 70 in 2009). Her age-defying looks and health catapulted her into a position of “sainthood” and general admiration.
Many leaders write books about eating a vegetarian diet and those books can go on to be treated as Holy Scriptures that speak “the way”. These holy texts are referenced and quoted by followers as guidelines for proper behavior, and to aid in avoiding temptation.
Some books take a predominately health-based perspective, while others take a more ethical/environmental-impact perspective, such as Animal Liberation and The Ethics of What We Eat by Peter Singer.
Some books gain celebrity-level popularity, such as Skinny Bitch by Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin, which became an international bestseller when it was seen in the hands of Victoria Beckham. Celebrities who happen to be vegetarians also write their own books, such as Alicia Silverstone’s The Kind Diet.
In addition to books, there has also been a surge in the number of diet-related documentaries, such as Forks Over Knives.
In the world of vegetarianism there are multiple “sects” or degrees of vegetarians. There are vegetarians who eat eggs and dairy. Some strict vegetarians find fault in this, and attend a more rigid church. Just as history has seen the Church of England fight with the Catholic Church, there can be as much conflict between vegans and vegetarians as there is with meat eaters. Vegans often socialize with other vegans, and sometimes exclusively so.
There can be a sense of persecution for those who do not abide by the rules, as well as acceptance and celebration for those who do.
What’s the takeaway?
Personally, I think it makes perfect sense that diets can be analogous to religions. Especially today when people are consciously referring to a diet as a ‘lifestyle’ in order to avoid the connotation associated with the word ‘diet’, it is easy to see that how one eats is analogous to how one lives his/her life.
Religions are really lifestyles as well; they tell people how to live their lives and use faith and spiritual beliefs as evidence/justification. Both seem to have the potential for good, but can just as easily be used as an excuse to ostracize, mistreat and condemn. That is where I draw the line.
I believe that particular diets and the messages associated with them can be supported without vilifying others. Let’s make a conscious choice, whether we are vegans, vegetarians or omnivores, to have open, receptive communication. To respect that there may not be one “right” diet for all people and to encourage everyone to place value on healing over adhering to doctrine.
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