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Why do Some Religions Have Dietary Restrictions?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Some world religions have dietary restrictions which are observed by their followers as part of their religious practice. Most of these religious dietary restrictions are laid out in the holy books of the religion, such as the Bible, Vedas, Qu'ran, Sutras, and Torah. Depending on the religion, dietary restrictions can be quite severe, as is the case with the Jainists, or relatively simple, in the instance of Presbyterians. There are a number of reasons for religious dietary restrictions to be put in place, but in most cases the restrictions can be disregarded in an emergency situation, as would be the case with a Jewish man stranded on desert island with only ham sandwiches to eat. He would be allowed to eat the prohibited ham, as it would be preferable to starving to death.

One of the most common reasons behind religious dietary restrictions is food safety. Many religions were founded in hot climates in an era long before refrigeration. As a result,some have restrictions on eating carrion, as it may be rotten, or notoriously unstable fish like shellfish. Some specific animals are restricted because they are believed to have unclean living habits, or because they require a great deal of energy to raise. In some cases, foods are restricted because the native population is allergic to them. In this sense, dietary restrictions protect the followers of the religion, allowing them to grow fruitful and multiply.

Another basis for religious dietary restrictions is religious beliefs. Buddhists and Hindus, for example, believe that they have a duty to reduce suffering in the world. For this reason, many followers of these religions belong to vegetarian sects, because animal-derived foods often involve suffering. In other instances, such as the sacred cow in Hinduism, a particular plant or animal is sacred or holy, and should not be eaten.

Many dietary restrictions are closely related to fasting. A number of religions around the world practice fasting as a way to increase spiritual purity and growth. In addition, it teaches followers self-will, and helps them to resist temptation. In times of food scarcity, the practice of fasting might also have helped to make life more bearable, as fasting in the name of God is easier to endure than fasting because of famine or poverty.

In some cases, religious dietary restrictions address specific issues, as is the case with gluttony, or intoxicants such as alcohol and coffee. In these instances, overconsumption of these products can be dangerous to someone's health, or to social well-being. As a result, priests counsel moderation in consuming these products to ensure that their followers lead sober, productive lives. While some of these religious dietary restrictions might seem excessive, such as the total ban on alcohol for devout Muslims, they make sense when one examines the context of where the religion originated. In the case of Islam, a ban on dehydrating substances makes sense for followers of a religion founded in a desert environment with limited water.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a CulturalWorld.org researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon328336 — On Apr 03, 2013

Food safety rarely is a reason for religious dietary restrictions. If it were scripture would read more like a medical book or cookbook. "Thou shall not under-cook chicken." That clearly is not the case.

Typically, the restrictions are about specific animals, animal groups, ingredient combinations, sourcing areas and sometimes a particular type of foodstuff.

The source for dietary restrictions is more likely to be socially and culturally dictated in order for one group of people to differentiate from another group for a variety of reasons which include being at war with each other (or more general dislike), a method to divide hunting/pasture areas or just to stand out as a minority.

The idea that these rules have anything to do with safety and health in a causal and real way is a myth.

By bear78 — On Mar 28, 2011

I'm a Hindu and in my family, we fast once a week on Tuesdays and we also fast throughout the year on special religious days. We even fast for the well being and long life of our husbands. We fast a lot!

It's mainly for religious purposes but we believe that we not only discipline ourselves but also detox our bodies. Our whole digestive system is working almost all the time and fasting gives the system a break so to speak. Doctors also point out the benefits of fasting for weight loss and overall health.

So it's kind of a double prize for us. We are becoming closer to God while fasting and also improving our health.

By discographer — On Mar 25, 2011

I think that questioning religious dietary restrictions is fruitless. These restrictions are believed to be communicated directly by God and God is not questionable by its believers.

For example, it may seem to non-Muslims that the ban on alcohol for Muslims is too strict. But a Muslim will tell you exactly the opposite. They won't just say that this is the command of God but also that it is banned in many other religions. They may also say that this restriction has existed for all of humanity, since Adam, was also a Muslim.

I have friends of many religions and I know not to argue with religious beliefs. We all live our lives according to different principles. The least we can do is respect each other and ask a guest of different background or religion "hey, is there anything you can't have?" and provide some extra options for dinner.

By anon133291 — On Dec 10, 2010

a good read. thanks!

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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