With great appreciation, from: Pamela Goyan Kittler, MS and Kathryn P. Sucher, ScD, RD and Four Winds Food Specialists.
Religious food practices vary widely. Prohibitions and restrictions even within a particular faith may change between denominations or branches. National variations are also common. Further, individual adherence to a religious diet is often based on personal degree of orthodoxy. Our intention is to provide only a brief overview of religious food practices.
Common Religious Food Practices
ADV – Seventh Day Adventist X – prohibited or strongly discouragedBUD – Buddhist A – avoided by the most devoutEOX – Eastern Orthodox R – some restrictions regarding types of foodsHIN – Hindu or when foods are eatenJEW – Jewish O – permitted, but may be avoided at someMOR – Mormon observancesMOS – Moslem + – practiced RCA – Roman Catholic
*Fasting varies from partial (abstention from certain foods or meals) to complete (no food or drink)
Meat & Dairy at Same Meal
Ritual Slaughter of Meats
Three primary Jewish congregations practice in the U.S., called Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform. The main differences between them are their positions on the Jewish laws. Orthodox Jews believe the laws are the direct commandments of God, to be explicitly followed by the faithful. Reform Jews follow the moral law, but that the laws are still being interpreted (some are considered dated, or currently irrelevant) and may be observed selectively. Conservative Jews fall in between the other congregations in their beliefs and adherence to the laws.
Jewish dietary laws are known as Kashrut, and are among the most complex of all religious food practices. The term kosher, or kasher, means “fit” and describes all foods that are permitted for consumption. Kosher is loosely used to identify Jewish dietary laws, and to “keep kosher” means that the laws are followed in the home. The dietary laws are among the most complex of all religious food practices. Briefly, they include what foods are “clean” and fit to eat, those that are considered “unclean” and are prohibited (a lengthy list that includes pork, shellfish, and other foods), how foods must be slaughtered, how they must be prepared, and when they may be consumed (specifically, rules regarding when milk products can be consumed with meat products). Special kosher laws are observed during Passover, including the elimination of any products which can be leavened (see our Holidays section for more information).
Jewish feast days include Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot, Hanukkah, Purim, Passover, and Shavout (dates vary because Judaism uses a lunar calendar). Specific foods are associated with the feasts, but may differ nationally. Complete fast days (no food or water from sunset to sunset) include Yom Kippur and Tisha b’Av. Partial fast days (no food or water from sunrise to sunset) include Tzom Gedaliah, Tenth of Tevet and Seventeenth of Tamuz, Ta’anit Ester, and Ta’anit Bechorim.
Judaism 101 – Kashrut: Jewish Dietary Laws
This outstanding site describes the how, what, when, where, and why of the kosher laws. Especially useful is the Glossary of Terms– just click on the highlighted word for its definintion and pronounciation (you can enable the glossary at the bottom of the page if your system supports frames, or just click on the word and glossary will come up as a second window).
How Do I Know It Is Kosher – An OU Kosher Primer
This site is run by the Orthodox Union (a major rabbinical authority). It includes a straightforward description of the kosher laws. Best of all, you can link to “Ask the OU Vebbe Rabbi” to ask specific questions!
The official internet site of the U.S. kosher food industry. Includes an extensive listing of products and manufacturers.
Three major branches dominate the faith: Roman Catholicism; Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and Protestantism. Dietary practices vary from none to explicit.
Roman Catholicism: Devout Catholics observe several feast and fast days during the year. Feast days include Christmas, Easter, the Annunciation (March 25th), Palm Sunday (the Sunday before Easter), the Ascension (40 days after Easter), and Pentacost Sunday (50 days after Easter. Few foods are associated with these feasts internationally, though Catholics in each country observe many food traditions (see our Holidays section for more information). Fasting (one full meal per day permitted; snacking according to local custom) and/or abstinence (meat is prohibited, but eggs, dairy products, and condiments with animal fat are permitted) may be practiced during Lent, on the Fridays of Advent, Ember Days (at the beginning of the seasons) by some Catholics; some fast or abstain only on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Prior to 1966 in the U.S., abstinence was observed on every Friday; today, Catholics must avoid meat only on the Fridays of Lent (40 days before Easter). Food and beverages (except water) should be avoided for one hour before communion is taken.
Eastern Orthodox Christianity: The fourteen self-governing churches that form the Orthodox Church differ from Catholicism in their interpretation of the Biblical theology, including the use of leavened bread instead of unleavened wafers in communion. Numerous feast and fast days are observed (dates vary according to whether the Julian or Gregorian calendar is used). Feast days include Christmas, Theophany, Presentation of the Lord into the Temple, Annunciation, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost Sunday, the Transfiguration, Dormition of the Holy Theotokos, Nativity of the Holy Theotokos, and Presentation of the Holy Theotokos. In addition, Meat Fare Sunday is observed thre third Sunday before Easter (all meat in the house is consumed and none is eaten again until Easter); Cheese Fare Sunday is observed on the Sunday before Easter (all cheese, eggs, and butter are consumed); and on the next day, Clean Monday, the Lenten fast begins. Food and drink is avoided before communion. Meat and all animal products (milk, eggs, butter, and cheese) are prohibited on fast days; fish is avoided, but shellfish is permitted. Some devout followers may avoid olive oil on fast days, too. Fast days include every Wednesday and Friday (except for three fast-free weeks each year), the Eve of Theophany, the Beheading of John the Baptist, and Elevation of the Holy Cross. Fast periods include Advent, Lent, the Fast of the Apostles, and Fast of the Dormition of the Holy Theotokos.
Protestantism: The only feast days common in most Protestant religions are Christmas and Easter. Few practice fasting. The only denominations with dietary laws fundamental to their faith are Mormons (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) and Seventh-Day Adventists. Mormons avoid strong drink (alcoholic beverages) and hot drinks (coffee and tea). Many Mormons also avoid caffeine-containing drinks. Followers are encouraged to eat mostly grains and to limit meats. Some Mormons fast one day a month and donate their food money to the poor. Seventh-Day Adventists avoid overeating; most are lacto-ovo-vegetarians (when meat is consumed, most avoid pork). Tea, coffee, and alcoholic beverages are prohibited. Water is consumed before and after meals, and eating between meals is discouraged. Strong seasonings and condiments, such as pepper and mustard, are avoided.
The Catholic Encyclopedia
This comprehensive resource includes articles on feasting, abstinence, and fasting with detailed histories and descriptions.
Living an Orthodox Life – Fasting
The Orthodox Christian Information Center provides extensive guidance on fasting. Click on “Church (Old) Calendar” within the text to get more information on the Orthodox calendar.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS)
This official site for Mormons provides links to instructions on The Lord’s Law of Health (outlining dietary restrictions) and on Fasting.
The Ministry of Healing
The writings of Ellen G. Harmon, 19th century spiritual guide, form the foundation of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. In this book she describes her dietary recommendations (click on sections 23 through 27).
Seventh-day Adventist Nutrition Council
Vegetarian nutrition resource materials.
Eating is a matter of faith in Islam. Muslims eat for good health and overindulgence is discouraged (eating only 2/3 of capacity is recommended). Fasting is considered an opportunity to earn the approval of Allah, to wipe out previous sins, and to understand the suffering of the poor. It is the fourth ritual observance in the Five Pillars of Islam.
The Islamic dietary laws are called halal. This is also the term for all permitted foods. Prohibited foods as described in the Koran are called haram; those in question are mashbooh. Pork and birds of prey are haram; meats must be slaughtered properly; alcohol is also prohibited and stimulants, such as coffee and tea, are avoided by the most devout. Feast days (dates vary according to the lunar calendar) include Eid al-Fitr, Eid al-Azha, Shah-i-Barat, Nau-Roz (a Persian holiday), and Maulud n’Nabi (see our Holidays section for more information). Fasting includes abstention from all food and drink from dawn to sunset. Voluntary fasting is common on Mondays and Thursdays (it is undesirable to fast on certain days of the months and on Fridays). Muslims are required to fast during the entire month of Ramadan, and are encouraged to fast 6 days during the month of Shawwal, on the 10th day of Muhurram, and on the 9th day of Zul Hijjah.
Halal Helpline – Articles
A series of articles on halal practices, including: What is halal? What is haram? Guidelines for slaughter. Modern and pharmaceutical products. Best of all, you can contact them with specific questions.
IFANCA – What is Halal?
A straightforward introduction to halal practices by the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America (IFANCA). If you click on the “Ingredient Info” page, there is a short list of common food ingredients according to their prohibited or questionable status.
Note: As of the time this is being written, there are a very poor selection of web sites outlining dietary practices in eastern religions. Only one general site is listed– more will be added as they become available!
In general, Hindus avoid all foods which are thought to inhibit physical and spritual development. Although eating meat is not explicitly prohibited, many Hindus are vegetarian because they adhere to the concept of ahimsa, non-violence as applied to foods (particularly the infliction of pain on animals). If meat is eaten, beef never eaten because the cow is considered sacred, and pork is often avoided. Some foods are prohibited in some regions (which foods are prohibited vary widely), such as snails, crabs, fowl, cranes, ducks, camels, boars, fish with ugly forms, and the heads of snakes. Devout Hindus may avoid alcoholic beverages. Foods that stimulate the senses, such as garlic and onions, are not recommended for anyone seeking spiritual unity.
The concept that some foods promote purity of the body, mind, and spirit also influences Hindu dietary practices. Some foods are considered innately pure, such as the products from cows (especially milk, yogurt, and ghee-clarified butter), thus foods which aren’t as pure can be improved by preparation with these pure foods, such as frying in ghee. Other foods are considered inherently polluted (such as alcohol and beef) and can never be made pure.
Over 18 major holidays in the Hindu calendar are feast days (dates vary according to the lunar calendar), including Holi, Dusshera, Pongal, and Divali (see our Holidays section for more information). In addition, personal feast days include the anniversaries of birthdays, marriages, and deaths. Fasting is also common, dependent on a person’s social standing (caste), family, age, gender, and degree of orthodoxy. Fasting can be complete, eating “purer” foods, adopting a completely vegetarian diet or it can be abstaining from favorite foods. Common fast days include Sundays, the day of the new moon, the full moon, the 10th and 11th day of each month, the Feast of Sivaratri, the 9th day of the month of Cheitra, the 8th day of Sravana, and days of eclipses, equinoxes, solstices, and conjuction of the planets. Some Hindus also fast on the anniversaries of the deaths of their mothers and fathers.
Links to sites with information on the practice of non-violence and vegetarianism in relation to different faith traditions.
Buddhist dietary customs vary considerably depending on sect (Theravada or Hinayana, Mahayana, Zen etc.) and on country. Because most Buddhists also subscribe to the concept of ahimsa, many are lacto-ovo-vegetarians. Some eat fish, some only abstain from beef. Some believe that unless they personally slaughter an animal, they may eat its meat.
Buddhist feasts also vary regionally; the birth, enlightenment, and death of Buddha are three common festivals (dates differ by regional calendar) in Mahayana Buddhism, while all three days are unified into the single holiday of Vesak in Theraveda Buddhism. Buddhist monks fast completely on the days of the new moon and full moon each lunar month; they also avoid eating any solid food after the noon hour.
Buddhism and Medical Ethics: A Bibliographic Introduction
An overview of the Buddhist worldview in respect to issues such as abortion and euthanasia.
Jainism, a branch of Hinduism, promotes the non-violent creed of ahimsa. Devout Jains are complete vegans, and may avoid blood-colored foods, such as tomatoes, and avoid root vegetables which may result in the death of insects clinging to the vegetable when it is harvested.
Although Sikhs participate in many Hindu practices, they differ significantly in their belief in a single God. Sikhs abstain from beef, but pork is permitted; alcoholic beverages are prohibited.
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