(NEW YORK) -- The new bible for dieting is, for many, the Bible. The Daniel Diet, inspired by the Biblical prophet Daniel, has become a popular diet among some U.S. Protestant congregations to help encourage healthy eating. According to two passages in the Bible, Daniel fasted twice. During the first fast, he ate only vegetables and water to set himself apart for God. For a second fast mentioned in a later chapter, Daniel stopped eating meat, wine and other rich foods.
Pastors across the country are encouraging their congregations to participate in similar fasts or diets inspired by these passages to kick start weight loss and to strengthen their faith. In Hawaii, the First Presbyterian Church of Honolulu at Ko'olau holds an annual "Daniel Fast" for congregants to not only encourage healthy eating, but to help people keep their faith by refocusing their attention on their diet. "We hope the Fast will help reset your spiritual compass, which can get rusty and out of whack because of everyday cares and concerns," First Presbyterian Church of Honolulu Pastor Dan Chun wrote on his diet support website.
The Saddleback Church, which has a congregation of at least 20,000, has launched a website and book, co-written by head pastor Rick Warren, to promote a long term version of the diet renamed "The Daniel Plan." At a rally for the Daniel Plan last year, Warren said he was inspired to start the fast after performing 800 baptisms in one day and realizing most people he baptized were overweight. "I had this thought, it wasn't very spiritual, but it was 'We're all fat,'" said Warren. Although the Saddleback church version of the Daniel Plan has specific diet directions, most versions of the Daniel diet are slightly improvised since the Bible doesn't give exactly detailed instructions. Versions of the fast include eating only raw vegetables or fruits for 10-21 days with water.
Jessica Bennett, a dietician at Vanderbilt Medical Center, said she believes that trying a version of the Daniel diet can potentially kick start healthier habits or weight loss for some people.
"I definitely think it makes people more aware of what they're eating and what they're putting in their body," said Bennett. "I say more power to them."
Bennett does caution that very strict versions of the diet could be frustrating for people, since it will drastically change their diet quickly. Although she says by being a group setting, people on the diet can draw strength and support from one another.
"Most congregations tend to bond over food and people tend to go to lunch or dinner right after church," said Bennett. By focusing on the social aspect, people don't fixate on food restrictions. "People can tell me exactly what they ate or lunch or dinner but can't tell me what the conversation was. They're focusing too much on food."
Additionally Bennett said these diets might be particularly helpful for certain subsections of the U.S. Protestant congregations, since some studies have found that people of certain Protestant faiths are more likely to be overweight.
A 2006 study found that Baptist women tended to have a higher BMI (Body Mass Index) than other women not part of that religion and a 2003 study found that conservative Protestant men tended to have a higher BMI.
As for people using fasts to strengthen their faith, Bennett said one reason people may feel closer to God is that they no longer have food to rely on as a coping mechanism.
"I think also people use foods to deal with emotions and things in their life," said Bennett. "If they're looking to God instead they may feel a closer relationship."
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