Maria Yagoda lives in New York City and has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, Bustle, People, Al Jazeera America and others.
On an unseasonably bitter night, I reached for the garlic, the only “vegetable” ever in my vegetable bowl, then paused. Garlic could arouse me sexually or inspire lethargy. That’s what the Jains say, anyway. And at this particular moment, I was supposed to do as the Jains say. I was embarking on my first day of a strange, monthlong journey: I had four weeks to try out four distinct religious diets.
Newly jobless and chronically depressed, I sought salvation in the cult of food, but as an atheist, I wondered if I was entitled to salvation, or even the grace of religious insight. But food? I understand food — how it nourishes and, yes, blesses. My particular brand of gastronomic worship, however, had taken the form of White Castle Wednesdays and Pizza-Plus-Scandal Thursdays. So I wondered: Could the blind following of rules lead me toward balanced, thoughtful and conscientious eating? And could I do it without devoting myself to the cult of juice cleanses and spin classes?
For centuries, of course, food has been part and parcel of almost every culture’s religion, be it the Torah’s ban on shellfish or the Hindus’ avoidance of beef. I can conjecture why: If religion is about the daily rules and values by which we live, well, you can’t get much more daily than your three regular meals and, um, elevenses, drunk munchies and, for the civilized, a spot of afternoon tea. But society has its own set of cuisine rules, the number of which just keeps mounting. No gluten; yes to kale, antibiotic-free salmon and grass-fed beef. Indeed, the world is going through a food reset, begot by both the angels and the devils of our better nature, from concern over climate change to worries about our waistlines.
This, though, was about something personal. Making myself an adult, perhaps? Because no one ever told me — there wasn’t a rulebook for a 20-something with no money. Maybe borrowing someone else’s food rules could help. I chose the four diets — each hailing from a very different theological framework — that would challenge me the most: I would eat like a Jain, a Mormon, a Rastafarian and an Edenic-minded Christian, all while consulting a nutritionist for a secular perspective. Desperate to shock my takeout-fueled system and discover a healthier, more enlightened way of being, I embarked on a journey to relearn how to eat.
WEEK ONE: JAINISM
I needed veggies, which I would have to down absent of garlic or onion. Good news: I had a pack of frozen ones, left over from the night I decided to “get healthy!” last summer. I sliced open the gross frozen brick. But. Shit. A few orange chunks of carrot were wedged in there somewhere.
Jains don’t do root vegetables. In their extreme attempt to avoid all killing or harming of any life-form, they object to eating carrots, potatoes and, yes, garlic, out of concern that small insects suffer or die during their harvest. Jainism, an ancient Indian religion, espouses nonviolence (ahimsa) for all living creatures. If you take violent actions, the universe (powered by karma, not God) will punish you. Mahima Shah, an 18-year-old Jain from New Jersey, assured me that American interpretations of the Jain diet are often more relaxed, especially among younger generations. She’s “just a vegetarian” and doesn’t eat eggs. But she’s considering veganism in the future. Gulp.
The next morning, I ate organic bran cereal for breakfast with homemade almond milk. I went for a 10-minute run and felt self-satisfied. I nibbled on cucumbers and garlic-free hummus. For dinner, I met up with my sister, a high school history teacher who had recently taught Jainism to a class of ninth-graders. She educated me further: It wasn’t just about “Do no harm” but also “Have no sex” … and, she added, you’d better not like your stuff too much. “Don’t form attachments to anything,” she counseled. I thought of my many earthly attachments. Thursday night television. Vanilla lattes. Routine sex. Sunday television.
For the remainder of the week, I awoke hungry and gassy. My mornings were suddenly free of such spiritually obscuring concerns as McMuffins and (probably) stepping on bugs. But apparently I was kind of dooming myself by going to extremes, warned Marissa Lippert, a nutritionist and the owner of Nourish, a health-minded restaurant in New York’s Greenwich Village. She was proud of me for eating good proteins — tofu and nuts. I counted this diet as a minor success: Although I continued to fantasize about roasting de-lish-ous legs of meat, I did stop going to the taqueria next door to covertly smell other people’s food. By the end of the week, I hadn’t lost any pounds, but I did feel lighter. Maybe it was the shed weight of all those hefty attachments.
WEEK TWO: WORD OF WISDOM
On Feb. 27, 1833, God dictated to Joseph Smith a set of health rules known as “The Word of Wisdom,” which Smith recorded in Section 89 of the Doctrine and Covenants. The guidelines read like the conclusion of a Michael Pollan manifesto: Eat meat sparingly. Avoid alcohol. Eat in-season vegetables. Don’t overeat. Avoid coffee and tea. Historically, church leaders have emphasized the prohibitions while stressing less the positive prescriptions. But as Jane Birch, an author and a follower of the Word of Wisdom, explained to me, it doesn’t have to be punitive. “God’s saying to us: Here’s a way to be blessed. Here’s a way I can give you more joy.”
It never occurred to me that I was a coffee person until my second morning without coffee. Exhausted, I entertained fantasies of buying a bedpan. The toilet was so far. I napped three times that first day: once in the morning, once in the early afternoon and once on the bus home to Philadelphia. Even if you discount the bus nap — too inevitable — two naps is excessive for a young woman who is not hospitalized. I waited desperately for the “light and energy and joy” that Birch had promised me. “God wants us to get away from these addictions, these dependencies, so we can be free,” she had told me. Thankfully, Lippert suggested my coffee attachment wasn’t so devilish: Caffeine, she said, “has amazing health benefits” — in moderation.
That evening I set the table with my mother for our family dinner. I wondered out loud if I could drink cider with the meal. The day was celebratory, so I felt I needed a drink. (And, yes, I recognized the urge as problematic. My budding Mormon conscience told me: You should never need a drink to celebrate.) “Mitt Romney would never drink cider,” my mom said, refolding all of my napkins into neat triangles. My caffeineless brain had no patience for my Mormon-novice mother. I turned to my holy text. Google said: Cider was a no-no.
WEEK THREE: ITAL DIET
I knew nothing of Rastafarianism except that I disliked the kids in high school who thought Bob Marley was God. Of course, those faux rebels gravely misunderstood Rastafarianism, which began in the 1930s as a Jamaican black-power movement. An important part of Rasta culture is the ital diet. “Ital cooking is like a woman without makeup,” said Michael Gordon, the 44-year-old chef and owner of an ital restaurant in Brooklyn, New York, as he chopped scallions for his “anytin’ stew.” Allll natural.
Gordon grew up in a small country village in Jamaica, where there were no refrigerators or modern conveniences. “My toy was a chicken. I still play with my food.” This aesthetic makes a Rasta diet fairly friendly to today’s hipsters: At his Crown Heights restaurant, he does the organic and fresh thing. The foods are meant to increase your “life energy” by keeping out the artificial. No canned items, no artificial additives and — as a typically vegan diet — no meat, dairy or eggs.
You have to cook to eat. I’d forgotten something so basic. Ital’s powerful brand of naturalism demanded that I reconsider not just what I feed myself, but how. This week I would choose a different, simpler kind of love — a love of self and of earth — that required I cook to eat. Every other day, I visited a New York farmer’s market, bought enough sprouted things to feed 10 hungry families and prepared giant veggie feasts of soups and stir-fry and salads. (Lippert liked this “dynamic” approach.)
The hard part was the guidelines about cooking: Don’t cook on metal; don’t eat out of cans. I went for simple salads, rice, nuts, carrots and lots of smoothies blended with almond milk, frozen bananas, strawberries and kale. I convinced myself that these smoothies tasted exactly like milkshakes, which I told to friends and anyone who’d listen.
But I couldn’t cook my own stuff forever. On my last day, I journeyed to the Whole Foods buffet for a raw veggie salad, which I ate next to a man systematically deconstructing a rotisserie chicken with his hands and face. I swooned with jealousy, vaguely recalling my meaty former life, and watched him finish his carcass. I proceeded to buy a butternut squash and head home to prepare dinner, because at 1 p.m., just 10 minutes into digesting lunch, I was hungry again.
WEEK FOUR: HALLELUJAH DIET
I wanted oatmeal. Couldn’t. I wanted a bagel. Couldn’t. I wanted cereal. Couldn’t. This was the beginning of a nightmare.
The Hallelujah Diet is mostly raw vegan, which is the closest to dying you can get without dying. You must eat 85 percent raw foods, leaving 15 percent of your daily intake for cooked (still vegan, still all-natural) indulgences like brown rice and beans, nondairy cheese, herbal tea or stewed fruit. I’d stocked up on raw nut butters, so I slathered raw peanut butter on two apples and watched 1980s fitness videos. I went for a walk. I tried reading, but each word looked like a mini pepperoni pizza.
Unlike the other diets, the Hallelujah Diet makes someone real money. That someone is the Rev. George Malkmus, who in the early 1990s claimed that switching to a more natural, biblically based diet cured him of colon cancer (as detailed in his book Why Christians Get Sick). He opened Hallelujah Acres in 1992 in Rogersville, Tennessee, which now has a restaurant, cafe and juice bar. The diet, though, has humble origins, inspired by an Adam-and-Eve lifestyle — Genesis 1:29, to be precise:
“And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb and bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat.”
I contacted Marvin Young, chief marketing officer at Hallelujah Diet, with questions, and he responded, instead, to my word choice: “Our diet is not a religious-based diet; it’s a plant-based diet.” Maybe that’s its best selling point? Young bragged that the diet’s followers included everyone from baby boomers to generally raw-vegan-friendly folks. I considered that fads can have many incarnations, from Bushwick to the Bible Belt. There are some unsettling promises, like the Cancer Get Started Kit, which, for $400, will detoxify your body with enzymes, probiotics and nascent iodine.
During this week, I napped a lot too. And dreamed that I served Martha Stewart and Jane Krakowski a luscious, raw blender soup made with carrots, kale and ginger. I woke up and trekked to the supermarket to pick up the ingredients, as though I were expecting Martha and Jane any minute. It had even infected my dreams — where I could fantasize about anything, from rubbing my body with ground pork to swimming in a sea of turkey chili — with raw- and kale-centric visions. I was a convert.
It was cold out, though, and Lippert said that might be an excuse. Raw diets in the cold: bad news. I had lost 3 pounds at the end of the week. But I didn’t feel much lighter.
Photography by Cary Jobe.