Want to be a better Christian? Then you should start eating like the prophet Daniel.
The “Daniel Diet” has gained momentum among Christians looking to increase in their discipleship and decrease their waistline. Many churches are promoting the Daniel Diet, encouraging believers to replace sweets and processed foods with a strict intake of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. But does the Bible story of Daniel really warrant Christians to build a dieting subculture around it?
Daniel was an Old Testament prophet who was taken captive to Babylon. He and his circle of friends, who were of the noble classes of Israel, were summoned to join the royal courts of Babylon, where they were ordered to eat foods that the Hebrew law had ruled impure. Daniel, however, maintained his holiness to God by not trespassing the food laws, and God blessed him and his friends with strength and health.
Here’s how it happened, according to Daniel 1:8–16:
“Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the king’s food, or with the wine that he drank. Therefore he asked the chief of the eunuchs to allow him not to defile himself. And God gave Daniel favor and compassion in the sight of the chief of the eunuchs, and the chief of the eunuchs said to Daniel, “‘I fear my lord the king, who assigned your food and your drink; for why should he see that you were in worse condition than the youths who are of your own age? So you would endanger my head with the king.’
“Then Daniel said to the steward whom the chief of the eunuchs had assigned over Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, ‘Test your servants for ten days; let us be given vegetables to eat and water to drink. Then let our appearance and the appearance of the youths who eat the king’s food be observed by you, and deal with your servants according to what you see.’
“So he listened to them in this matter, and tested them for ten days. At the end of ten days it was seen that they were better in appearance and fatter in flesh than all the youths who ate the king’s food. So the steward took away their food and the wine they were to drink, and gave them vegetables.”
Olga Khazan from The Atlantic documents how many Christians have harnessed this Scripture text to develop a dietary trend. Khazan cites studies that show Evangelical Christians are more likely than the non-religious to become obese. But the Daniel Diet may have potential to help reverse this pattern and promote health-mindedness as an identifying Christian characteristic.
For the Christians that Khazan interviewed, the spiritual experience of the diet was more important than the physical benefits. They felt that it drew them closer to God by challenging them to rely on Him and to love Him more than their favorite foods. Khazan concludes that a “higher power” is just what many people need to reform their eating habits and live more healthily. And churches provide the “reinforcement mechanism” needed to support dieters in their commitments.
Also capitalizing on this movement is Rick Warren, pastor of the seventh largest church in the U.S. and author of the best-seller The Purpose Driven Life. Warren is the author of a new book, The Daniel Plan: 40 Days to a Healthier Life. Once you pass through the flood and wilderness wandering of the Daniel Diet, you’ll be a better — and more attractive — Christian.
Maybe you’re scratching your head, wondering what the above Scripture text has to do with a diet plan for today. Welcome to Evangelical subculture. Forget Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, or the Atkins Diet. Christians can do all those things better than “secular” culture — just like we excel in pop music, fashion, quilting, skating, etc.
Although the Daniel Diet is helping Christians become more conscientious about their health, the trend raises some questions. First, should we regard the Bible as an instruction booklet for personal ends — in this case, for a diet manual? The answer should be evident. The Bible is not a cookbook, geology textbook, exercise manual, or self-help inspirational guide. Warping God’s Word into these things steals from its true meaning and power.
For example, the point of the text in Daniel is not even about being healthy; rather, it represents obedience and living holy in a challenging situation. (Besides, Daniel and his friends were more healthy not because of the diet but because God supernaturally blessed their obedience!). Also, God forbade certain foods not because they were impure in themselves but because he wanted Israel to emphasize their differences from other nations. After Jesus came, God declared these “unclean” foods clean, symbolizing that the “unclean” nations are now clean and welcome to join as the people of God (Acts 11:7–9). So go ahead and enjoy your pork chops in thankfulness to God!
Second, is it the church’s role to support movements like the Daniel Diet or promote Christian subcultures in general? Not really. Scripture does not call churches to devote energy to things like diet support groups (or Christian actors clubs, etc). This point may seem petty, but the fact that an author from The Atlantic is observing a growing movement of a self-labeled uniquely Christian diet shows that our subcultures says something about our identity to the surrounding culture.
That being said, how should Christians think about the body? My purpose is not to develop such a theology, but you can read more about the need for one in this article by Matthew Lee Anderson. While Christians shouldn’t build a culture around a “Christian” style of dieting, we also don’t want to be known for neglecting our bodies and not rightly valuing health and attraction. Physical health is not among the fruits of the Spirit, but the Bible does forbid gluttony and promotes wise stewardship of the body.
God wants us to experience his goodness and creativity by enjoying tasty foods with gratitude. You’re more than welcome to eat just vegetables and fruits, but try not to call it a Christian diet, base your spirituality on it, or insist that the Bible sanctions it.