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What would Jesus eat?

Thursday, November 13, 2003

By Rebecca Sodergren

"What would Jesus [fill in the blank]?"

Ted Crow, Post-Gazette)

Shop and dine responsibly

Dr. Don Colbert, author of "What Would Jesus Eat?" and a corresponding cookbook, offers many suggestions for making healthful food choices. Here are a few:

Ask yourself, "Why do I eat this?" and "Would Jesus eat this?"

Shop around the perimeter of the grocery store, loading up in the produce section and choosing mostly fish in the meat section. Avoid the processed foods typically found in the center aisles of the store.

Eat at least half "living foods" (grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds); eat "dead foods," such as animal products, sparingly, and avoid manmade, processed, high-sugar or high-fat foods.

Sit down and eat a leisurely meal. This aids digestion and helps to avoid eating from the vending machine.

Go out to celebrate special occasions, but do not keep chips, cakes and other unhealthful foods around the house.

In a restaurant, look for the healthful items on the menu. Order steamed, unbuttered vegetables and plain baked potatoes as side dishes and skip dessert.

"What Would Jesus Eat?: The Ultimate Program for Eating Well, Feeling Great, and Living Longer" ($22.99) and "The What Would Jesus Eat Cookbook" ($19.99), both by Don Colbert, M.D., are published by Thomas Nelson and are sold at Christian bookstores and by online booksellers such as and

Among evangelical Christians, that's been a popular question in recent years. At first, the question was simply "What Would Jesus Do?" shortened to "WWJD" on bracelets and bumper stickers. The acronym reminded people to think about what Jesus would do before acting in a given situation.

But since then, "WWJD" has morphed into commands for specific areas of life. "What would Jesus drive?" the recent anti-SUV campaign. "How Would Jesus Raise a Child?" a new release in the Christian bookstores.

And last summer: "What Would Jesus Eat?: The Ultimate Program for Eating Well, Feeling Great, and Living Longer." There's also a companion, "What Would Jesus Eat Cookbook."

The author of both, Dr. Don Colbert, is a family physician in a practice of more than 20,000 patients in Orlando, Fla. Seeing people "making the same dumb mistakes," getting the same diseases after years of choosing fast and processed foods, Colbert says, he wanted to educate people about how better nutrition can ward off disease.

But with a title like "What Would Jesus Eat?" and with some of the corresponding content of Colbert's book, he has done what other nutritionists have not usually done: He has raised nutrition to a religious and theological level.

A recent check of Christian bookstore shelves revealed that food, nutrition and dieting are popular topics of books in the "Christian living" section. Yet most Christian authors don't go so far as to mix food and theology. We looked at several Christian books that keep food to an "eat this and you'll feel healthier" approach.

So why did Colbert take the more theological road?

"I thought I'd go back to the training manual -- the Bible -- and see what Jesus ate. Lo and behold, Jesus ate the healthiest diet ever developed, the Mediterranean diet."

Colbert's primary goal, then, was to promote healthful eating habits, but looking to the Bible for his subject matter at times propelled his book into theological waters.

What did Jesus eat?

Few Bible passages actually show Jesus eating.

Comb your memory and you might come up with Luke 24:42, where the post-resurrection Jesus shows his disciples he's not a ghost by eating broiled fish and honeycomb.

Other passages infer that Jesus either ate or would have permitted eating certain foods: bread and wine at the Lord's Supper; wine at the wedding at Cana; bread and fish at the feedings of the multitudes.

But Colbert goes further with his inferences.

Because Jesus was a Jew, Colbert says, he would have followed Old Testament dietary laws -- for instance, laws governing clean and unclean animals and fish. These laws were specific: cattle, sheep and goats were allowed; hogs were not. Fish with fins and scales were allowed; catfish, crustaceans (crabs, lobsters, shrimp), mollusks (clams, mussels) and others were not.

As Colbert says, Jesus would not have eaten an Easter ham.

Colbert also assesses Jesus' culture and decides what he would have eaten based on what was available. Fish was widely available; beef was saved for special occasions, such as the prodigal son's return. So, Colbert says, Jesus probably ate fish on a daily basis but beef not more than once a month.

Other staples in Jesus' diet, according to Colbert's assessment of the culture, would have been bread and other whole grains, vegetables, fruits and olive oil.

And Colbert believes Jesus taught diet by example, so he says we should eat the same foods today.

Colbert's WWJE diet

Not that Colbert takes a hard line on all "bad-for-you" foods. (Yes, it's OK to have a slice of cake on your birthday, he'd say.)

His goal, he said in a telephone interview, is to get people to make more healthful choices, even if it's only one step at a time.

In his practice, he tells people that if they don't think they can implement the whole diet plan, "they should start with one thing -- drink water instead of Cokes, or use extra-virgin olive oil instead of butter."

He wants people to see that health is based largely on choices.

"You can't always blame it on 'my genetics' or 'my thyroid,' " he said. "That little thyroid has been unfairly criticized for years.

"Christians nowadays need to take responsibility for their health. So many people go to healing meetings and so on when they need to realize they get a lot of diseases because of making the wrong choices."

The medical evidence he uses to back up his stances is probably the book's most convincing material. Colbert cites myriad studies showing that people who eat a Mediterranean diet -- as Jesus would have -- suffer less heart disease, cancer and other diseases.

To encourage good food choices, such as the Mediterranean diet's "living foods" (fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts), Colbert starts his first chapter by telling readers to ask themselves two questions before putting anything in their mouths: "Why do I eat this?" and "Would Jesus eat this?" For the first, he cites such reasons as nostalgia for childhood favorites to answer why people make poor food choices.

The remainder of the book attempts to answer the second question. That one is tougher, in part because Jesus didn't live in modern-day America. Colbert is forced to speculate, concluding that Jesus wouldn't eat Twinkies but would eat soybeans.

What do others believe?

Those areas of speculation are sticky, in part because other writers have come to conclusions different from Colbert's.

The Christian Vegetarian Association (, for instance, teaches that the Bible mandates a vegetarian diet, citing such passages as the prophecies that show a lion and lamb lying down together. This group would say Noah was granted permission to eat meat only because the flood-decimated world left him few food options, but other people aren't supposed to eat meat.

Other scholars would take issue with Colbert's promotion of Old Testament food laws, such as not eating "unclean" animals and making sure all blood is drained from meat -- some of the kosher laws practiced by many Jewish people today.

Colbert's critics would say the New Testament freed Christians from Old Testament food laws and placed them under a new era of grace. To them, Colbert writes, "Let me respond this way: God is giving you the grace today to learn about His law and to live according to it."

But in a phone interview, Colbert seemed to contradict his book.

"No, we're not under the Old Testament law in the New Testament era," he said, "so you don't have to avoid all the forbidden foods from Old Testament laws. Just don't eat them all the time -- don't have bacon every day for breakfast."

But he maintained that the Old Testament laws do retain their usefulness because "God intended them to protect the Israelites from disease."

Those laws may have had the side effect of warding off disease, but T. David Gordon, associate professor of religion at Grove City College, disputes the notion that that was their purpose.

"The book of Galatians tells us that three things were intended to make the Israelites distinct from the other nations around them: circumcision, the calendar [observance of religious holidays] and the dietary code. These things were intended to mark the Jewish nation as the people of God."

Many New Testament passages seem to teach that the dietary code has been repealed. In Romans, Paul says one man believes it's OK to eat anything, but the "weak" man eats only vegetables. In Acts, Peter sees a vision from Jesus, who commands him to "Rise, kill and eat" a host of unclean animals.

And in Mark 7, Jesus himself seems to jettison Old Testament notions of clean and unclean foods: "Do you not perceive that whatever enters a man from outside cannot defile him, because it does not enter his heart but his stomach, and is eliminated, thus purifying all foods?"

Even though Jesus was a Jew, Gordon is not as certain as Colbert that he followed Old Testament food laws. He notes that Old Testament laws addressed not only what kinds of foods were eaten, but also with whom they were eaten -- unclean people were as taboo as unclean foods. Yet Jesus had a propensity for hanging out and even eating with unclean Gentiles, so perhaps he wasn't so fastidious about his food, either.

But the larger question, as Gordon sees it, is not so much what Jesus would eat but whether Jesus intended to make rules on the subject at all -- whether he should be seen as a self-help guru.

"I don't think Jesus would raise the question at all, nor would he be content with our coming up with a list" of what to eat and what not to eat, Gordon said. "Certainly it's fair to ask whether we're being good stewards: Do we in America eat more meat than we probably should?"

But a conversation about general principles such as stewardship, as he sees it, is different from making food rules seem like a primary concern of the Bible.

Is Jesus' diet a valid question?

Modern American evangelicals, Gordon believes, are often fixated on laws.

This fixation stems in part, he says, from a belief that the Bible has a specific, absolute answer for every single situation and choice we face in life.

Yet things often aren't so clear-cut in the Bible, he says.

In writing his book about ethics, Gordon has been researching modes of ethical thought in the Bible. Only one is law.

The one he believes is deeply undervalued in evangelical thought is wisdom.

"The book of Proverbs tells us to go out and learn about the world through our experience," he says. "It tells us to go ahead and sleep all day and then find out that we'll have nothing to eat in the wintertime. It tells us to figure the world out and make wise decisions."

Yet he says modern American Christians are more likely to look for an absolute command: " 'Thou shalt not drink Coca-Cola,' instead of, 'I'm going on a long drive, and Coca-Cola helps me stay awake, so maybe I should drink it today.' "

He would urge caution in ascribing food rules to Jesus instead of making personal, situation-based choices using wisdom. "Why did God give you eyes and ears and a tongue?"

Not that Colbert always gives hard and fast rules about food. Though seemingly unclear on the point about whether Old Testament food laws still apply, he does allow for leeway in the diet; such as eating cake on your birthday. The question is whether people, legitimately wanting to follow Jesus, will interpret Colbert's teaching as law.

That's the danger spotted by Mark Galli, who reviewed Colbert's book for Christianity Today.

"I ... fault whoever came up with the misleading title, which suggests that if we imitate Christ in this way, we'll start 'feeling great and living longer,' " Galli writes, noting that the New Testament promises, conversely, that Christians will suffer.

Galli, in fact, takes issue with the whole question, "What would Jesus...?"

"Perhaps Jesus never intended his disciples to slavishly imitate him," he writes. "Notice that he never uses the idea himself. All he says is 'Follow me.' Paul often employs the idea of imitation to call his readers to deeper discipleship. But the context is always about living by overarching Christian principles, not slavishly copying what Paul or Jesus did."

Is Colbert advocating slavish copying?

That's the question.

On one hand, he says unequivocally that Jesus taught us what to eat by his example -- and he bases an entire diet plan on that example.

On the other hand, in a phone interview, he made it clear that he doesn't make food the final issue in Christian belief.

He tells his patients they can eat foods prohibited in the Old Testament and "they'll still go to heaven. I just tell them they'll go there a lot sooner."


This is a variation on Dr. Don Colbert's recipe for hummus, which is one of his favorite foods in the "What Would Jesus Eat?" diet plan. His version involves buying dried garbanzo beans, soaking them, then cooking them until they've softened a bit. We couldn't find dried garbanzo beans, so we substituted canned ones, uncooked.

  • 2 cups garbanzo beans (one 15-ounce can plus part of a second one)
  • 1/2 cup tahini (see note)
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • Juice of 2 medium lemons
  • 1/2 teaspoon Celtic salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon cumin

Puree in food processor until smooth. Store in refrigerator. Serve with pita bread, crackers, vegetables or other dipping snacks.

Note: Tahini is a sesame seed paste typically found in health food stores.

"What Would Jesus Eat?: The Ultimate Program for Eating Well, Feeling Great, and Living Longer"

Rebecca Sodergren, who grew up in Forward, is a Wichita Falls, Texas, freelance writer.

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