Dietary evangelism and religious beliefs

Although animal source foods (ASFs) are foundational to the rituals of most religions, manifestations of asceticism and puritanism sometimes lead to avoidance of ASFs in an attempt to achieve a higher state of 'purity'. In some cases, such as Seventh-Day Adventism and nationalistic currents of Hindu vegetarianism, this exceeds the religious community and has considerable influence over mainstream dietary discourse and beliefs. This may also entail a variety of references to animal rights, planetary harmony, and health.

Seventh-Day Adventism

Whereas economic interests either promote or discourage the consumption of ASFs [Leroy et al. 2018; see elsewhere], ideological agendas mostly do the latter [Leroy & Hite, 2020]. This may be due to anti-speciesist philosophy [see elsewhere] or religious motives, as is the case for Hindu or Jain vegetarianism [see below]. More recent examples include Seventh-Day Adventism (SDA) and fractions within the New Age complex. Historically, this largely traces back to 18th-century Swedenborgian mysticism and to 19th-century Bible Christians and Theosophists [Shprintzen 2013; Bates 2017].

The ideological angle is far from being irrelevant, as the SDA church is a particularly impactful promoter of vegetarianism [Banta et al. 2018]. According to the church's prophetess, Ellen G. White, its duty is to 'actively engage in public-health education to control desires and baser passions'. Its dietary evangelism is mostly framed as health advocacy and 'Lifestyle Medicine', referring to the so-called 'Adventists studies' performed at the SDA-owned university of Loma Linda [e.g., Orlich et al. 2013]. Originally, however, the matter was one of dietary abstinence and purity [see elsewhere; Leroy & Hite, 2020].
 
While a Garden-of-Eden diet of 'grains, fruits, nuts, and vegetables constitute[s] the diet chosen for us by our Creator', meat eating is condemned as sinful as it 'enfeebles the moral and spiritual nature'. SDA beliefs relate 'flesh eating' to impure thoughts, 'animal propensities', and 'self-vice' (onanism). This was also linked to a series of health issues, especially after White's 1864 Vision from God revealing that 'meat causes cancer' [Fettke 2018]. Health and 'biological living' were then firmly connected to SDA evangelism by John H. Kellogg in his Battle Creek Sanitarium [Wilson 2014; Markel 2018].
 
Since the Kellogg era, the SDA church has exerted a non-negligible influence over nutritional advice in the US and beyond [Banta et al. 2018]. The influential position paper on vegan/vegetarian diets by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) [Melina et al. 2016] is largely a product of SDA activity and ethical vegetarianism, as is also valid for its older editions [see Southan 2012a,b,c,d,e,f,g,h]. The AND was formerly known as the American Dietetic Association (ADA), co-founded in 1917 by Lenna Cooper (a Kellogg protégé). The church also set up partnerships with the World Health Organization (WHO) [PAHO 2011; ANN 2015]. One SDA member contributed to both the Giessen Declaration, kick-starting the Planetary Health Diet concept [Cannon & Leitzmann 2006; see elsewhere], and 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans [DGAC 2020]. 
 
Besides its ideological motives, the economic interests of the SDA church also need consideration. In support of his beliefs, John H. Kellogg initiated the industrial development of vegetarian foods of his own invention, such as breakfast cereals, analogue meats, and soy milk [Mansky 2019]. As such, this was the first step to what has become today's interest of food corporations in the market of mock ASFs [see elsewhere]. The early development of ASF imitations by SDAs [WorthingtonMemory 2016] led to the current legacy of >20 SDA-owned food industries worldwide, producing >2,000 products with sales estimated at $0.7 billion. It has resulted in powerful alliances with non-profits and the corporate food industry, to promote cereals and soy products while discouraging meat and, increasingly so, dairy [Fettke 2018]. In 2020, the Church also purchased the Blue Zones® concept [Adventist Health 2020; see elsewhere]. For a closer look at public-private partnerships and their societal implications, see elsewhere.
 
The case of the ‘Indian diet’

The Indian diet holds a unique position globally, being part of the Global South but at the same time shaping Western dietary views. Its ‘vegetarianism’ is often idealized by those promoting plant-based food interventionism [see elsewhere]. The EAT-Lancet Commission, for instance, presents India as a global model to stay 'within the planetary climate boundary for food' [Loken & DeClerck 2020], whereas religious organizations of Indian origin [e.g., ISKCON] aggressively promote vegetarian sattvik diets, both domestically and internationally. Such diets, which consider all ASFs but dairy as inferior and catering to baser instincts, are enforced through government-funded school midday meals, in spite of a majority of children coming from ASF-eating homes [Siddharth 2019].

A Western view on the Indian diet was first created in the mid-19th century in the context of famine relief. Hindus were portrayed as protein-deficient non-flesh eaters [Arnold 1994], and wheat eaters of Northern India were seen as physically superior to the rice eaters of the South [Walker 2002]. Building on a developing scientific paradigm of adequate essential nutrition as a universal need [Sathyamala 2010], British scientists set up various interventions (e.g., enrichment of rice diets with skimmed milk, calcium lactate, or soybean milk). Although initial research emphasized superior bioavailability from ASFs, the effort was underway to push for a cereal-based diet as ‘almost as good as’ ASFs, and more economically viable. 

Gandhi [1959] and others began to challenge the ‘undue emphasis on animal foods such as meat and milk’ by the West, as complained that the ‘unlimited capacity of the plant world to sustain human beings’ had not been explored by modern science [Arnold 1994]. In parallel, a spiritual role for vegetarianism had been developed by Theosophists (with whom Gandhi interacted) [Barkas 2014]. This not only reinforced its symbolic value within India but also exported it to the West, where it entered New Age religion and became influential in Food Reform circles of the Anglosphere [see above].

As a result, mentions of ASFs are almost erased from the dietary guidelines for Indians [NIN 2011], in spite worrying nutritional indicators [NFHS4] and high rates of child undernutrition [Headey & Palloni 2020]. Several Indian states have excluded eggs from school menus, on the grounds of religious sentiments [Trivedi 2018]. Yet, less than 10% of the 6 to 23-month olds are adequately fed and there is 38% stunting, 40% undernutrition, and 56% anemia in children younger than five. One of four adults has a BMI <18.5, which is associated with inadequate food quality and quantity [NFHS4]; 62% display subclinical vitamin A deficiency [Laxmaiah et al. 2012].

Within India, the idea of vegetarianism as an expression of purity became increasingly a matter of nationalist discourse, even if only 20% self-reports as vegetarian and 15% (180 million people) identifies as beef eaters [Natrajan & Jacob 2018; Trivedi 2018]. Although eaten by Hindus in ancient India [Jha 2010] and by early Indus civilization [Suryanarayan et al. 2020], beef has become the hot bed of politics and religious ideology, especially since the nationalist rise to power in 2014 [Trivedi 2018]. While the government imposed laws prohibiting the slaughter or sale of cows, an exponential rise was seen in mob violence, harassment, and lynching of (predominantly poor) Muslims and other meat-eating communities by vigilante groups [HT Correspondent 2016; Mander 2018; Frayer 2019].

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