2016-05-25

Faced with an obesity epidemic in their ranks, more and more evangelicals are taking a taste of the vegan life. But don’t expect to hear them describe it that way.

In conservative Protestant parlance, the experience is called a “Daniel fast.” Practitioners emulate the Old Testament prophet Daniel, who fasted – or restricted his eating – for three weeks by consuming only “pulse” (i.e., foods from seeds, presumably fruits and vegetables) and water. Today’s fasters modify what they eat and seek God by focusing extra attention on prayer and scripture reading.

Though it’s impossible to say how many have done Daniel fasts in recent years, the movement has certainly struck a chord. The Daniel Fast by Susan Gregory has sold 89,000 copies since it came out in 2010, according to publisher Tyndale. Gregory says her website (danielfast.wordpress.com) has had seven million hits since she starting blogging on the topic in 2008. Many liturgical Protestants embraced the practice for Lent this year, she said, and it’s proven most popular among evangelicals in independent churches.

“The Daniel fast people enter into it for spiritual purposes,” Gregory says. “Then they end up discovering the amazing health benefits of it… I get all kinds of reports about how they haven’t felt this good in 10 or 15 years.”

America’s struggle with obesity is acute among Christians, according to research from Purdue University. One in five Methodists is obese, as are one in four Baptists. Among pastors across denominations, 75 percent are either overweight or obese, according to Duke University’s Pulpit & Pew project.

Susan Gregory
Susan Gregory

“There is a health crisis in our country, and certainly in the Christian community,” Gregory said.

The Daniel fast has fueled popular spinoffs, such as Saddleback Church’s Daniel Plan, which reportedly helped 15,000 people lose 250,000 pounds last year. (Note: critics say the 52-week Daniel Plan is a bit misleading since adherents eat lean meats, which Daniel avoided during his fast).

In effect, true Daniel fasters not only go vegan, which entails shunning animal foods such as meat and deal. They go even further by reflecting Daniel’s rigorous practice. Since he drank only water, today’s Daniel fasters shun juice, tea and coffee, all of which are OK for vegans. They give up leavened bread. They even disavow sweeteners temporarily in a bid to feel sacrifice and in deference to Daniel’s renunciation of all “pleasurable” foods.

Fasters sing the praises of the method, which Gregory says has helped scores to jump-start and sustain a long-term, healthy lifestyle. Some report benefits that go well beyond nutrition.

“I developed patience,” recalled Kathleen Woodbury, who did the fast a few years ago as part of a discipleship group at Eagle Brook Church in White Bear Lake, Minn. “The practice of restraint made me more patient with my teenage son and husband. I wouldn’t have been as patient with them if I hadn’t fasted.”

Even so, happiness with the fast’s benefits isn’t spawning new appetites for veganism per se. Observers say evangelicals generally still don’t embrace the “vegan” moniker, even for just a few weeks, in part because it carries connotations beyond the diet.

“You’ve got all these political and cultural implications that go along with those labels” of vegan and vegetarian, said Larry Eskridge, associate director of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College. “Those might be some reasons why evangelicals might shy away from the labels.” Seeing the regimen as a God-given one, however, makes it compelling.

“It makes an impression on people,” Eskridge added, “to think that God has a special insight into what makes for a healthy existence: spiritually, emotionally and physically.”

Eskridge notes that evangelical thinking has periodically spawned calls for discipleship that includes plant-based diets. Examples include the Seventh Day Adventists in the 19th century to Marie Chapian’s Free to be Thin in the late 1970s. But they’ve “never caught on” in a big way, he says, in part because church fellowship is commonly associated with eating rich,  comfort foods together. And social habits are hard to break.

Daniel FastWhat enables some evangelicals to reap the benefits of a plant-based diet is the Daniel fast’s spiritual dimensions. Gregory emphasizes that it’s a fast, not a diet, and a fast comes with a specific, God-seeking purpose. Some fast to find God-given clarity around big decisions; others fast simply to get closer to God. Whatever the particular purpose, evangelicals can get on board in good conscience because they’re following a model sanctioned in scripture.

Fasting and prayer are hardly new for evangelicals or their spiritual ancestors. Early Puritans in the American colonies, for instance, used to declare fast days to repent for sins, discern God’s will and seek blessings such as rain for crops. In some ways, the Daniel fast taps into that heritage by setting aside a stretch of time for disciplined eating and mindfulness.

Though the Daniel fast requires no set time frame, many partakers do it as Daniel did for 21 days. That’s generally how long it takes to break an old habit or forge a new one, behavior experts say. After that, Gregory says, some return to eating lean meats but also sustain practices honed during the fast. These include eating a mostly plant-based diet and avoiding processed foods. She adds that some come to affirm that it’s OK, even beneficial, to experience some discomfort in discipleship. 

As the practice grows in popularity, Gregory finds some do it largely for the health benefits – or to take advantage of summer’s bounteous produce. She’s glad to see people embracing it, but she hopes they’ll remember it’s a spiritual discipline above all else.

“When we enter a time of prayer and fasting, it should change our life,” Gregory said. For those who sustain a healthier lifestyle, she adds: “It’s not a diet. It is helping people make that conscious choice to honor their bodies and to submit their bodies to God.”

G. Jeffrey MacDonald is a Massachusetts-based reporter with a religion focus. His book, Thieves in the Temple: The Christian Church and the Selling of the American Soul (Basic Books, 2010), received third place for Religion Nonfiction Book of the Year for 2010.

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