Religious food laws and obesity

Obesity in a consumerist society and the role of religious food laws
The obesity epidemic has been widely identified as a global public health nutrition problem, with over 400 million adults estimated to be obese worldwide.1,2 The development of globalisation – from a greater movement of people and goods through to trade and food commodities between and within countries – has rapidly formed and redefined present-day consumerist society. With regard to food and health, terms such as:




and coca-colinization


are used to describe some of the affects of globalisation on society – impacting and changing people’s food culture.3 In addition to this, many other factors affect the food choices of people including but not limited to: social structures, ideologies, cultural tradition, social norms, values and beliefs.4 Obesity, therefore is a very complex issue5 and a multifaceted approach is required to combat the epidemic. No doubt, a multitude of social theories, frameworks, campaigns, education programs and policies exist to understand and tackle obesity 5-7. However, within a consumerist society, some individuals are less affected by their obesogenic environment than others. Though it has been established that people’s food choices are influenced by many factors; for the purpose of this discussion, the role of religious dietary food laws – Jewish Kosher, Muslim Halal and Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) will be examined. Does the adherence to strict dietary lifestyles outlined in specific religious food laws impede the prevalence of obesity?

Kosher and Halal religious food laws
There are approximately fourteen million Jews and over 1.3 billion Muslims around the world today, making the latter one of the fastest growing religions worldwide.9-10 Although there is minimal (if any) evidence to suggest that following a Judaic Kosher or Islamic Halal diet lowers the prevalence of obesity, information accrued from examination of these diets may prove beneficial.
The Kosher and Halal diets have been well documented.8-11 For Jewish people, the dietary food laws are derived from the Torah (first five books of the Old Testament); and denotes what foods are considered Kosher “fit or proper” and what are non-Kosher and hence not fit for consumption. Food is Kosher if it is prepared in accordance with the conditions set out by Judaic law. Interpretation of the Torah teaches what types of animals are allowed to be eaten, the prohibition of blood and the prohibition of mixing milk and meat. Additionally, it specifies what can and cannot be eaten during the Jewish festival of Passover.
Similarly, for Muslims, their food laws are derived from the Quran and Hadith (the traditions). These books define what foods are considered Halal, an Arabic term meaning “lawful”. Namely, it depicts what animals are allowed for consumption, the prohibition of blood, and the prohibition of alcohol. Food can also be classified as Haram “illicit or unauthorised”, that is, any food believed to have the potential to cause bad effects on the mind, body or spirit is forbidden (taboo foods such as pork and its by-products, animals not slaughtered in ways coherent with Islamic law, products made with alcohol or blood).
The Kosher and Halal dietary laws are summarised below.

Comparative examples of Judaic and Islamic dietary food laws8-10

Judaism – KOSHER


  • Only animals with cloven hooves and which chew the cud are edible (sheep, cattle, deer, goat). Consequently, no hares, pigs, camels
  • Only eats forequarters of animals
  • Only eats fish with fins and scales
  • No blood
  • No food preparation on Sabbath
  • Ritual slaughtering of animals in the presence of a Rabbi or equivalent
  • Separate utensils used for meat and dairy products
  • Other forbidden foods: teeming winged insects (locusts excluded), bats, birds of prey
  • Animals dying of disease or natural causes are forbidden
  • 1 – 6 hours must elapse after eating meat before consuming milk

Islamic – HALAL


  • Only eats animals with cloven hooves and which chew the cud (sheep, cattle, deer, goat) No hares, pigs, camels
  • No intoxicating substance
  • Only eats fish with fins and scales. Furthermore, fish must be alive when caught (therefore, no shellfish or eel)
  • No blood
  • Food sacrificed to other (idols) other than Allah is forbidden unless under constraint
  • Ritual slaughtering of animals in presence of a Muslim priest
  • Carnivorous animals and birds that attack prey with talons are forbidden
  • Food is not wasted because it is a gift from God
  • Land animals with no ears (frogs and snakes) prohibited
  • No pork

Seventh-day Adventist religious food laws
While much of Islamic and Judaic food laws concentrate on how food is handled and thereby determine its edibility, the dietary laws of SDA lay emphasis on healthy eating, adequate exercise and rest to achieve optimal healthy living (see below).8 Many SDA believe that meat consumption causes people to be less sympathetic and more animalistic. Furthermore, there are biblical references to pigs as ‘unclean’ animals.8, 11 For these reasons (among others); consumption of meat is rejected among SDA so almost half of all Adventists are vegetarians.8, 11 Those that choose to eat meat will generally eat smaller than average quantities.

Summary of SDA food laws12
Avoided foods

  • Meat and highly refined foods
  • Tea, coffee, tobacco, alcohol
  • Aged cheese
  • Hot spices

Suitable foods

  • Grains
  • Fruits and nuts
  • Vegetables and pulses
  • Water

Sociological Framework
Sociological frameworks are models based on theories that aid the understanding of the relationship between issues that affect individuals or populations and the context within which these exist.13 The Symbolic Interaction social view point can be used to understand individuals observing religious food laws. In its simplest, Symbolic Interaction implies that people attach meaning to objects, events, circumstances and experiences and these meanings depict how people make sense of the world around them; moreover, these meanings evolve and are learnt by people.13
For many, religion is a way to make sense of the world in which they occupy and a means to connect with a higher spiritual force. For others, religious teachings are a way of life – formulating morals, beliefs, ethics and norms. Moreover, many religions exert extensive dietary laws and though these may differ between religions, they all share very similar views about food.
In his book, Fieldhouse discusses why prudent observance of religious dietary food laws may be beneficial to the believer.8 Food is believed to mediate communication with God or supreme being(s) hence the spiritualisation of food. Consequently, discreet adherence to food laws demonstrates faith, rejection of worldliness, creates a sense of belonging and identity with fellow believers and expresses separateness from others.8 Therefore, because of the association of food with spirituality; fasting, vegetarianism and taboo foods is not uncommon among many religious people.8-10 The religions of interest in this discussion paper – Judaism, Islam and SDA – all have a sacred book from which they live by. How religionists interpret the content of these sacred books influences the way they interact with people, handle circumstances and even food choices. For example, in all three religious groups, some foods are perceived as ‘taboo foods’ and consumption of these is prohibited and widely avoided. Traditional Muslims, Jews and Adventists associate many animals with uncleanness (as translated from their sacred book) and the consumption of particular animals will make them unclean, unsympathetic and animalistic; many avoid drinking tea or coffee and alcohol consumption is commonly prohibited because it may affect one’s senses.

Does adherence to Kosher, Halal or SDA religious food laws impede the incidence of obesity in a consumerist society?
There is insufficient research specifically examining the prevalence of obesity among people following strict Kosher or Halal diets to provide a conclusive answer to this question. However, comparing both Kosher and Halal diets with that of Adventists’, it is arguable that the vegetarian nature encouraged by these diets may be beneficial.8, 14 A study performed by Worsley and Kent found that the strict dietary and lifestyle regime of SDA had protected them from the effects of an obesogenic environment compared with their non-SDA counterparts; SDA men had lower Body Mass Index (BMI) than non-SDA men.14 Furthermore, compared with the general population, they are less likely to suffer from diet-related diseases (such as hypertension and cancer).8
Hypothetically, if there was enough evidence to suggest that following strict religious dietary laws impedes the prevalence of obesity, could the “cure” for the global obesity epidemic be as simple as following a dietary recipe? As mentioned earlier, many factors influence people’s food choices. These choices are further complicated with the addition of political, environmental, social and behavioural influences.4
In the United States alone, an estimated 10 million kosher consumers purchased over 7 billion dollars worth of kosher products in 2001; the Halal trade market is worth 150 billion dollars worldwide – put simply, products abiding by many religious standards is widely available.10 Yet still there are those who find it difficult to deliberately adhere to religious food laws because of culture barriers. Stodolska and Livengood found that many American Muslim immigrants felt that religious practices acted as a social barrier.15 For instance, living in an obesogenic environment where socializing often occurs over a meal out, Halal options available may be limited, often forcing Muslims to compromise. Consequently, many American Muslim immigrants find themselves segregated from people and tend to form friendships with co-religionists; alternatively, there are those who choose to adapt to a new culture to fit in by compromising and giving up their adherence to traditional religious food laws.15 With the increased acceptance of the “Western lifestyle” in consumerist societies, like Australia and the US, it can be predicted that this will impact the lifestyle and food choices of even those who follow religious food laws. The “Western lifestyle” is characterised by consumption of energy-dense foods and meat; increased portion size causing overconsumption; and behaviours like eating between meals and minimal physical activity which leads to adverse changes in energy balance, ultimately causing overweight and obesity.1, 3, 14, 16

In summary, though there have been studies suggesting benefits from promoting vegetarianism and regular physical activity (notably that of the SDA diet), it is not enough to prove that observance of religious food laws alone impedes the incidence of obesity. A multifaceted approach is required in order to gain more conclusive evidence about observing religious food laws and the incidence of obesity. For example, future research can focus on the impact of the “Western lifestyle” on Jewish or Muslim people living in obesogenic environments compared with those living in non-obesogenic environments. Also, research can discover what percentage of the overweight and obese population in consumerist societies actually adheres to strict dietary food laws and thereby, discern whether overweight and obesity is attributable to their strict diet.


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  2. Niskar A, Baron-Epel O, Garty-Sandalon N, Keinan-Boker L. Body weight dissatisfaction among Israeli Jewish and Arab women with normal or overweight-obese body mass index, Israeli INHIS-1, 2003-2004. Prev Chronic Dis. 2009 Apr 6(2): 1-8.
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  4. Beardsworth A, Kiel T. Sociology on the menu. London: Routledge; 1997.
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  9. Eliasi JR, Dwyer JT. Kosher and halal: religious observances affecting dietary intakes. J Am Diet Assoc. 2002; 101:911-13.
  10. Regenstein JM, Chaudry MM, Regenstein CE. The kothese diets may prove beneficialhensive reviews in food science and food safety. 2003 Jul 2(3): 111-27.
  11. Azizi F. Islamic fasting and health. Ann Nutr Metab. 2010; 56:273–282.
  12. Minesterial Association General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. Seventh day Adventists believe… a biblical exposition of 27 fundamental doctrines. Review and Herald Publishing Association; 1988.
  13. Ferrante J. The social imagination (chapter 1) and Theoretical perspectives and methods of social research: with emphasis on Mexico (chapter 2). In Sociology: a global perspective. Belmont: Thomson Wadsworth; 2006(6). p. 3-29, 31-67.
  14. Kent LM, Worsley A. Does the prescriptive lifestyle of Seventh-day Adventists provide ‘immunity’ from the secular effects of changes in BMI?. Public Health Nutr. 2008 Mar; 1-9.
  15. Stodolska M, Livengood JS. The effects of religion on the leisure behavior of American Muslim Immigrants. J Leisure Res. 2006; 38:293-320.
  16. Nestle M. Increasing portion sizes in American diets: more calories, more obesity. J Am Diet Assoc. 2003; 103:39-40.

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