Do Religious Diets Work? Pros, Cons, and Side Effects

“AND GOD SAID, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat.”

The Hallelujah Diet, inspired by the above passage from the Book of Genesis, requires its disciples to consume 85 percent of their calories from raw and unprocessed plant-based foods, primarily vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds.

It is not to be confused with the Daniel Plan (inspired by the biblical prophet Daniel), a nutrition program cooked up by megachurch pastor Rick Warren in 2011 that involves eating 75 percent vegetables and whole grains.

And that is not to be confused with the Daniel Fast (same prophet), which asks its practitioners to subsist only on fruits, vegetables, and whole grains (and engage in lots of prayer) for 21 days.

In 2019, no less a celebrity than Chris Pratt touted the Daniel Fast on Instagram, noting that the end of his fast would align with the beginning of his Lego Movie 2 press tour and joking that it just might affect his interview skills. “It’s 21 days of prayer and fasting,” he said. “By the time you see me, I’ll probably be hallucinating. Stay tuned.”

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In the year of our Lord 2020, the most stressful 12 to 18-and-counting months that many of us have ever experienced, nearly half of all Americans said they put on pounds, with freshly rebranded “wellness” giants like WW (formerly Weight Watchers) and Medifast posting massive gains in customers (and revenue). The Way Down, a documentary about a pioneer in faith-based weight loss, Gwen Shamblin Lara, who created the Weigh Down Workshop, is scheduled to premiere on HBO Max this month.

At the same time, more than a quarter of the country reported a stronger belief in God—meanwhile, and not unrelated, online searches for “prayer” rose to their highest level ever—and for these Americans, faith in the Almighty has begun to inform their food choices.

“When life is unpredictable, such as in a global pandemic, we tend to do two things,” says Brandice Lardner, author of Grace Filled Plates: Ditch Diets and Find Food Freedom Through God’s Grace. “One, hyper-focus on what we can control, and managing our diets fits neatly into that box. Two, we seek one who can control things. Our faith grows in these times. A religious diet meets these two tendencies at once.”

do religious diets work

Eddie Guy

These aren’t your typical theological dietary guidelines, like Islam’s pork prohibition or Judaism’s kosher restrictions. They’re more like crash diets, usually accompanied by books and meal plans, and they’re finding a new flock of converts: According to Google Trends, searches for the Daniel Fast, the most popular of the many faith-based plans, skyrocketed from midyear 2020 to January 2021, and the hashtag #danielfast—an indicator of engagement—increased sixfold on Instagram.

That’s where Gerald Law, an Orlando-based musician, and his wife, Yohanna, rediscovered it. (They were familiar with it from their church.) “Social media is everything right now, and whatever seems popular on social media, everyone tends to try,” Yohanna says.

Weighed down (literally and figuratively) by the challenges of 2020, the couple embarked on the Daniel Fast together as a way to strengthen their relationship with God—and each other—and to find greater clarity in the chaos of the year. “I wasn’t sure if I could complete the fast,” says Gerald. “Not eating meat was something that my mind convinced me was out of the question. But denying myself things I thought I needed showed me how powerful God is.”

Though currently popular, religious diets have been around since at least the mid-’70s, just as the country started to get serious about the big business of weight loss. Back then, “all kinds of diets were launched,” says Susan Roberts, Ph.D., a professor of nutrition at Tufts University.

“Americans were gaining weight, losing health, and needed weight-loss programs to fix things,” Roberts says. “As a nation, we seem quite susceptible to wanting ‘miracle cures,’ so these big-bang diets that are extremely austere and hard to follow get publicity and customers.”

do religious diets work

Eddie Guy

While they’ve been predominantly Christian, there are a few tied to other religions, including Buddha’s Diet, which emphasizes mindful eating and intermittent fasting, and the program at the heart of Secrets of a Kosher Girl: A 21-Day Nourishing Plan to Lose Weight and Feel Great (Even If You’re Not Jewish), which combines Jewish principles and “clean eating.”

Many of these programs raise similar questions for believers and skeptics alike. Some argue that bringing God into the conversation adds unnecessary pressure to the already-arduous process of losing weight, with holy-book-based virtues like purity, discipline, and cleanliness influencing how dieters approach food.

“Many of those diets are relying on a perspective that focuses more on the food than the heart,” says Lardner. One example: The concept of original sin in traditional Christianity results from Adam and Eve consuming the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, so it’s easy to convince a religious dieter that partaking of “forbidden” food is an echo of that earlier sin. (Gluttony, after all, is one of the Big Seven.)

Others, however, believe that God can act as a crucial motivation while dieting.

shot of a young family holding hands in prayer before having a meal together outdoors


“The benefit of approaching weight loss from this God-centered way is that our success is not dependent on our willpower,” says Mike Cleveland, founder of Setting Captives Free, a ministry that hosts weight-loss boot camps. “Not only did God make us … He can fix what is wrong with us. To have the living God working in us is far better than mere human resolve or the restriction of contrived diets.”

That’s not to say religious diets are uniformly healthy, even if they’re grounded in the best of intentions. Those that rely on severe dietary restrictions, such as the Hallelujah Diet and the Daniel Fast, are “not teaching people how to eat in a sustainable way for long-term health,” says Roberts.

But introducing any kind of community, faith based or otherwise, can be a big positive. “We all need our own tribe of people, our cultural group, and churches and faith communities provide that,” says Roberts. “With more than 40 percent of Americans having obesity today, religious organizations can fill an important function of supporting health.”

Even if a religious diet doesn’t result in sustained weight loss, some would say that the journey is more important than the destination.

Take the Laws, the couple from Orlando who did the Daniel Fast together. Yohanna says she dropped ten pounds: “It was a little tough in the beginning, mostly because I’m a very picky eater and don’t eat veggies. But in the end, I felt better and felt closer to God, received the clarity I was looking for.”

As for Gerald, he says he lost weight, but “I honestly do not remember how much. The experience was really inspiring. We will absolutely be doing it again next year.”

A Religious Diet Decoder

Dietitian Brian St. Pierre, M.S., R.D., director of performance nutrition at Precision Nutrition, helps us unpack four of the most popular nonsecular diets.

The Hallelujah Diet

The Hallelujah Diet consists largely of raw, plant-based foods. It also calls for juicing; consuming the program’s BarleyMax supplement, an organic juice powder; and taking numerous other proprietary supplements. In other words, it’s hyper-restrictive, which can pose problems. “The overemphasis on raw plant foods will make it harder for folks to follow and can lead to GI issues if folks aren’t used to that much fiber,” says St. Pierre. “Suggesting supplements that you can buy from them raises red flags as well.”

The Daniel Fast

The Daniel Fast is a 21-day vegan diet consisting entirely of unprocessed foods, and it may help with short-term weight loss and better health: A 2010 study found that the 21-day plan was “well-tolerated” by men and women, and it improved several risk factors for metabolic and cardiovascular disease. While it may be challenging for meat eaters, St. Pierre says, “its emphasis on eating simply and focusing on minimally processed foods is a good one.”

Buddha’s Diet

Rather than limiting what you eat, Buddha’s Diet limits when you eat, the goal being that you eventually arrive at a daily nine-hour eating window. It’s basically a variation on intermittent fasting, which, St. Pierre explains, “helps folks eat less because you have less time to eat.” Buddha’s Diet also incorporates a weekly cheat day, which is nice for your tongue, but maybe not so nice for your waistline. “A full cheat day is often a concept that goes badly,” St. Pierre says. “Most people do better long-term if they can find ways to add in small indulgences regularly, guilt-free.”

The Maker’s Diet

The Maker’s Diet is less restrictive than many other religious diets, but also less science based. Its principal tenet: Maintain a diet of natural, unprocessed, organic whole foods. Plus, it asks you to avoid water, toothpaste treated with fluoride, and overexposure to electromagnetic fields from cell phones and microwaves. “Only allowing organic foods makes this far less accessible—and far more expensive—for most people,” says St. Pierre, “and reducing so-called ‘toxins’ ignores biological complexity. The liver detoxifies the body just fine, and most ‘toxins’ it mentions are not actual toxins.”

A version of this article originally appeared in the September 2021 issue of Men’s Health.

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