How My Faith Radically Changed What I Eat | Sojourners

How My Faith Radically Changed What I Eat

An In-N-Out burger, with a juicy beef patty, melted cheese, fresh lettuce, and tomato all stacked between two soft buns. Photo: Chin Hei Leung / SOPA Images/Sipa USA

Starting this Lent, I’m giving up red meat … forever.

Typically, Christians have honored the 40-day season of reflection, repentance, and renewal before Easter by giving something up — like alcohol, sweets, or social media — or adding in a new spiritual discipline that helps us “slow down, to tend to our roots, and to re-ground ourselves in God,” as Jeania Ree V. Moore writes. And usually, that fast ends at Easter, when we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection.

But this year I felt that my body — and the Holy Spirit — were inviting me to something more permanent, both for my own health and for the health of this beautiful planet God has entrusted to our care.

Before you think that I’m crazy or self-righteous, a big caveat: Decisions about what we do or don’t eat are never one-size-fits-all. While I have gradually come to believe this is the right decision for me, it may not be the right decision for anyone who has struggled with an eating disorder or the toxic shame of diet culture. It’s also not a decision that would even be possible for everyone, whether for reasons of their own health, food insecurity, or the systemic barriers that often limit access to healthy foods in certain communities. In a world where access to nutritious food is shamefully unequal, being able to make choices about our diet isn’t something to take for granted.

For those of us who do have enough, however, I believe God has entrusted us with a responsibility to think about how what we consume impacts our own bodies and the planet. And especially for those of us who live in North America, that includes reevaluating the role that meat plays in our diet.

“Eating is an inherently good activity,” writes Elizabeth Palmberg in the 2009 issue of Sojourners, “a channel of God’s goodness.” Eating is also an essential way for us to experience fellowship, build relationships, and share love. Yet eating can also be, as the Apostle Paul writes, an extension of our faithfulness: “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (I Corinthians 10:31). And when I think about my diet, it’s hard to imagine how the overconsumption of meat — which so often exacerbates health problems and disproportionately contributes to climate change — can be to the “glory of God.”

So, I considered the cost to the planet: When I think about what I can do to better protect the planet, the first things that come to mind are things like recycling, weatherizing my home’s windows, or taking more public transportation. And all these choices are important! Yet the research is pretty clear: One of the most impactful decisions we can make is to either reduce — or if possible, give up — eating meat.

Nearly 30 percent of the world’s ice-free land is used to raise or feed livestock, with cattle requiring significantly more land than any other animal, a key driver of deforestation. On top of that, cows release a vast amount of methane gas in their lifetimes, accounting for nearly 10 percent of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions.

While the relationships between meat consumption and carbon emissions are complex — and the beef industry has repeatedly tried to downplay its environmental footprint — it’s clear that eating less meat, especially less beef, is better for the Earth. And thankfully, this message is getting through: Nearly 1 in 4 Americans reported cutting back on meat in 2019, with meat’s environmental impact being the second most cited reason. The number one reason Americans said they are reducing meat consumption? Their own health.

My wife and I recently watched the provocative Netflix series You Are What You Eat, which documents participants in a Stanford study of 22 sets of identical twins, in which one twin was placed on a vegan diet and the other on an omnivore diet for eight weeks. While the Netflix show has been criticized by nutritionists for spreading “dubious (at best) claims” and a clear bias for vegan diets, the Stanford study itself — independent from the documentary — showed that those who adhered to the vegan diet had lower levels of “bad” cholesterol and blood sugar.

While I understood why the series pitted an omnivore versus a vegan diet — it made for a fascinating show — that binary oversimplifies what is really a spectrum of diets, including a range of omnivore diets with less meat. Too often, we frame these options as all-or-nothing choices, which can come across as judgmental or dogmatic, ultimately doing a disservice to our larger shared goal of promoting healthier people and a healthier planet. While I admire those who choose to go vegan, I’m still not yet ready to give up seafood, chicken, or dairy; like everyone, I’m a work in progress and, ultimately, we each need to discern what’s best suited for our individual health — and that’s OK. As animal protection advocate Leah Garcés told Eater, it’s much easier for “half of Americans’ meals [to] be vegetarian” than it is to “turn half of America vegetarian.” Small changes can still make a major difference.

If you are considering a change like this, I invite you to make this decision gradually and prayerfully, as my own journey has been: Twenty years ago, I gave up pork after I got deathly ill after eating a rack of ribs at my favorite blues and barbeque joint in Atlanta. In the years since, I worked to considerably reduce my red meat consumption; though I still crave an occasional trip to the Korean barbeque, a juicy beef burger, a plate of Jamaican oxtail, or Ethiopian lamb tibs (one of my favorites), these dishes became delicacies, not staples, in my monthly diet.

But oxtail and lamb tibs notwithstanding, what finally put me over the edge with red meat was a 21-day fast with the members of my church. Modeled after the biblical story in Daniel 1:8–16, when Daniel refused to eat the king’s choice meats and ate mainly vegetables in order to hear from God, for most of January I became functionally vegan. The purpose of the fast was spiritual: starting the new year by giving up a few comforts and instead seeking God’s voice, presence, and purpose. But while I ended the fast feeling spiritually stronger, I also just felt physically healthier.

Ultimately, I want to see our food systems change to make nutritious foods more accessible and affordable; I envision a world where everyone has enough to eat. And I know personal acts of faithfulness — like changing my diet — aren’t enough to change whole systems. But I still think these acts matter: After all, systemic change often starts with personal decisions that raise awareness of and challenge unjust systems through the power of our consumer choices, votes, or efforts to shift public opinion. So in this season of Lent and beyond, I’m hopeful that we can all discern ways we can better support our own health and the health of our planet.

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