The Wisdom of Religious Dietary RestrictionsFasting has been used as religious penance for thousands of years. The story of Jesus fasting for forty days and nights in the wilderness has served as inspiration to achieve enlightenment through dietary restrictions. Christian churches often required a 40-day fast during Lent consisting of only one meal per day and avoiding meat, fish, and dairy products. In modern times, the restrictions have been relaxed, but many people still fast during Lent in preparation for Easter and eat fish on Fridays throughout the year. Fish provides essential omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.
Muslims observe Ramadan, which is the Islamic month of fasting. During Ramadan, Muslims do not eat or drink anything from dawn until sunset. Fasting provides a way for Muslims to purify themselves through self-restraint. Proper observation of the fast is supposed to induce a feeling of peace and calm to redirect the heart away from worldly activities and cleanse the inner soul.
Jewish dietary laws, which are ordained in the Torah, are probably the most complex of all religious food practices. Yom Kippur is the only day of fasting mandated by the Torah. During this day, all Jewish men and women are required to fast for 25 hours while reflecting about atonement and repentance. The Jewish dietary laws, or Kashrut, describe the foods that are permitted for consumption and the way of preparing them. Different sets of pots, plates, and utensils are used for meat and for dairy foods. Pork and shellfish are forbidden. Animals with split hooves and which chew a cud, including sheep and cows, are allowed for consumption. Rabbis supervise the production and handling of food to assure that all the dietary rules are followed. Food that has been approved under rabbinical supervision is marked with symbols to indicate that it is kosher.
Unfortunately, the Torah never anticipated the invention of hydrogenated fats. Many kosher foods have hydrogenated fats with trans fatty acids that are known to double the risks of heart disease. Hydrogenated fats are used because they originate from vegetable oils, rather than from some questionable animal source. The rabbis could improve the health of all the Jewish people by ruling that chemically produced hydrogenated fats are not kosher.
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