For Christians, Jews and other Bible believers, planning your meals around the foods mentioned in the Good Book might bring you an increased sense of spiritual well-being as well as nourishing your body physically. But a biblical eating plan isn't cut and dried. Food in the Bible varies widely, depending on what foods were readily available during different time frames.
In the Beginning
Known as the Genesis Diet or Hallelujah Diet, this biblical eating plan focuses on foods God gave to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, as recounted in Genesis 1:29:
"Behold, I have given you every herb 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,” states the verse. That means herbs and their seeds, such as coriander and dill, as well as fruits, nuts, grains, legumes and other seeds.
Today, people following this diet for nonbiblical reasons are known as fruitarians. Purist Buddhist monks usually only eat foods that don't involve the death of an animal or plant, subsisting on fruits, nuts, herbs and seeds for many years.
As with those following the Genesis Diet, recent studies show no significant difference in health between Buddhists' eating habits and those of the general population. In fact, a 2015 study found that Buddhist priests had higher triglycerides and an equal risk for fatty liver disease.
A Diet for the Priests
The biblical book of Leviticus rolls out a list of "clean" and "unclean" foods to help its target audience — the Levite priests — maintain an exemplary diet worthy of serving in the Temple. Forbidden foodstuffs included predatory birds and animals, as well as most insects and animals that don't have cloven hooves and chew a cud.
Over the years, as those following this biblical eating plan experienced apparent health benefits, further kosher and eventually halal laws for Jewish and Muslim believers evolved and are still practiced today. Benefits include meat that exceeds standards set by the Food and Drug Administration, such as the exclusion of meat from sick or "downer" cattle.
Daniel Ate His Veggies
Daniel might be most famous for overnighting in the lions' den without becoming their dinner, but his diet is also noteworthy. At a time when he and his three fire-walking friends — Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego — first became Babylonian slaves, they all rejected the king's delicacies and wine, choosing to subsist on a diet of vegetables and water instead.
At the end of 10 days, all four youths were found to be healthier than those who had eaten the king's food, and Daniel continued this diet during his three-year training. Today, the Bible-based Daniel Diet is used as a 21-day fast that includes not just vegetables, but legumes, fruits, nuts, grains and seeds also.
Although the most recent study specific to the Daniel Diet was completed in 2010, subsequent studies have duplicated the results that certain cardiovascular risks, such as overall cholesterol, are reduced when a whole food diet that includes natural foods found on the Daniel Diet is followed. Reduction in total caloric intake is a crucial factor in the study results, whether or not meat is included in the menu.
What Would Jesus Eat?
There are not too many details about Jesus' dietary habits, but there is one thing we do know: He ate and drank what was available freely. "The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, 'Here is a glutton and a drunkard,'" reveals Matthew 11:19.
Jesus dined with his friends Martha and Mary, sinners including Matthew the tax collector, and Pharisees. He would have had access to the most extravagant kosher fare of his time, because religious officials, tax collectors and many of the female followers who provided for him through their own means were very well off.
The fact remains that Jesus was a religious Jew of his era, restricted by dietary law, and would have had access to the many foods found in the first century. In John 6:9, he's seen feeding a multitude of 5,000 people with five barley loaves and two fish. In Matthew 21:18, he approaches a fig tree, hoping for a quick snack. In Luke 6, he and his disciples glean grain from fields.
Most notably, he celebrates Passover with his followers, which features specific sacred foods that include lamb, eggs, bitter herbs, an apple-and-nut dish, and food representing springtime. Unleavened bread and wine are also vital components of the Passover Seder.
Superfoods in the Bible
The Bible is filled with mentions of foods that were common to all classes in ancient times but are noted as superfoods today. Garlic is hailed as "poor man's penicillin" thanks to its antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral properties. Raw honey, goat milk, pomegranate and biblical healing fats, such as olive oil, are all commonly touted super-healthy foods that Bible-era people took for granted.
Healing Herbs, Spice of Life
Life in the biblical age was anything but bland, especially when it came to eating. Tithing herbs, such as dill, mint and cumin, to the Levitical priesthood was common, and people grew these herbs on rooftops or other home garden areas. There are also health benefits associated with most of these herbs.
- Anise: It's good for digestion, anti-flatulence and respiratory issues, including COPD.
- Coriander: Also known as cilantro, this herb delivers manganese, magnesium and iron, along with vitamin C, vitamin K, protein and fiber. It's anti-inflammatory and can help manage cholesterol levels.
- Cinnamon: Cinnamon bark was more precious than gold in the ancient world. Today it's valuable for managing blood glucose levels, yeast infections and digestive upset such as flatulence.
- Cumin: A primary flavor ingredient in Israeli cooking, cumin packs anticancer phytochemicals and anti-diabetic properties into its tiny seeds.
- Dill: It packs a nutritious punch with vitamins A, C, B6, calcium, folate, manganese and iron in abundance. This staple of Middle Eastern cooking was used for digestion, calming and fighting bacteria; modern science now knows it has cancer-fighting properties as well.
- Garlic: Not only does the bulb fight illness-causing bacteria, viruses and fungi, but it's also a tonic for the cardiovascular system and has cancer-fighting benefits.
- Mint: Few things are more soothing than mint tea for the digestion. It's also useful for headaches and menstrual cramps.
- Mustard: Both ancient and modern foodies love the taste of mustard. It's also beneficial in the fight against cancer.
- Saffron: The most costly of the biblical spices, saffron was used for yellow dye as well as flavor. It promotes a feeling of fullness, has antidepressant properties and shows promise in fighting breast cancer.
The Biblical Main Course
Meat was undoubtedly eaten less often than it is today, as preparing meat usually involved hours of butchering and cleaning the beast before it ever made its way into the cooking pot. In fact, slaughtering an animal — such as the fatted calf in the story of the prodigal son or Joseph throwing a banquet for his brothers in Egypt — seems to have been more of an exception than the norm.
The most common meat was fish with both fins and scales. About 18 species of fish live in the Sea of Galilee. The largest type of barbel can grow to 30 inches and 15 pounds. Tilapia and sardines are the fish from the lake that, even today, are commonly eaten. For more auspicious occasions when an animal was slaughtered, the meats included beef, lamb, goat and poultry.
Other Sources of Protein
Nonmeat sources of protein were generally consumed in the day-to-day biblical eating plan. Pistachio nuts and almonds are mentioned as early as Genesis 43:11 when Israel sent his sons to visit Joseph in Egypt.
Beans and lentils can be found throughout the early books of the Bible. The legumes are rich in folate — which is especially crucial for women of childbearing age — as well as low in saturated fat. B vitamins figure prominently in their nutrition profile, and they deliver antioxidants as well as low-glycemic carbohydrates.
Eat Your Fruits and Vegetables
Fresh fruits and vegetables deliver enzymes, water, vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals to promote optimal health. Common Israeli produce mentioned in the Bible includes:
- Sycamore fruit
The Bread of Life
Barley cakes or bread was as common as wheat bread, but other ingredients were often used such as corn, millet, spelt and other grains. Most famously, the prophet Ezekiel subsisted for 390 days on a God-given bread recipe made from wheat, barley, millet, spelt, beans and lentils.
A Well-Rounded Meal
The book of 2 Samuel 17 gives us a look at the meal that the people of Mahanaim provided for David and his camp after they had been pursued through the wilderness by Absalom. The menu included all the basic food groups and a complete list of macronutrients, including carbohydrates, protein, fat, fiber, antioxidants and water.
"They also brought wheat and barley, flour and roasted grain, beans and lentils, honey and curds, sheep, and cheese from cows’ milk for David and his people to eat. For they said, 'The people have become exhausted and hungry and thirsty in the wilderness.'"
- Our Everyday Life: The Genesis Diet
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: National Institutes of Health: A Vegetarian Diet Does Not Protect Against Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease
- BibleGateway: Daniel 1
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: National Institutes of Health: Effect of a 21 Day Daniel Fast on Metabolic and Cardiovascular Disease Risk Factors in Men and Women
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: National Institutes of Health: Caloric Restriction as a Strategy to Improve Vascular Dysfunction in Metabolic Disorders
- Haaretz: Can We Eat Bacon Now?
- My Jewish Learning: What the Book of Leviticus Is About
- Dictionary.com: Leviticus
- Orlando Sentinal: Raw Oysters and Shellfish Safety
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Outbreak of Listeria Infections Linked to Pork Products
- National Public Radio: In California, Poisonous Death Cap Mushrooms Are the Forager's Bane
- St. Joseph Health: Is Eating Halal or Kosher Healthier?
- Judaism 101: Kashrut: Jewish Dietary Laws
- BibleHub: Matthew 11:19
- BibleGateway: John 6
- Kitchn: Learn About the 6 Elements of a Traditional Seder Plate
- The Junia Project: The Many Female Followers of Jesus
- Watchtower Online Library: Fish of the Sea of Galillee
- Dr. Axe: The Top 14 Herbs of the Bible
- eTimes of India: Health Benefits of Eating Coriander
- Dr. Mercola: What Is Dill Good For?
- Strong's Concordance: Bread
- Dieticians Association of Australia: Legumes: What Are They and How Can I Use Them?