God's Greatest Material Gift — Our Bodies
Arguably the human body, in particular our brain, is the most complex entity known in the universe. Under high
magnification, the ultrafine detail of cells and organs, and how they all work
together, is truly overwhelming.
Yet this wonderful gift belongs to each of us. Surely such a marvelous
gift comes with considerable responsibility. So it is that our understanding of
creation and of our magnanimous God naturally leads to seeing a close
relationship between religion and the stewardship of our bodies in both their
physical and mental aspects.
Adventists can be divided in many ways: vegetarians (of different types), non-vegetarians, their use of particular foods, exercise habits, body weight indices, church attendance, religious coping-styles, and more.
Although there are
other religions that recognize these things, this natural association is
probably most highly developed among Adventists. Despite this, the health
practices among Adventists are not uniform. Nevertheless, it is this somewhat
unfortunate fact that allows us, in the Adventist Health Study* to examine the
effects of different choices about lifestyle on subsequent disease experience.
Adventists can be divided in many ways: vegetarians (of different types),
non-vegetarians, their use of particular foods, exercise habits, body weight
indices, church attendance, religious coping-styles, and more. People in each of these categories have
different rates of several common diseases, and also of life expectancy.
While health is
no measure of spirituality, it seems appropriate, from a spiritual perspective,
that we should safeguard the integrity of our bodies in order to maximize
function, satisfaction and pleasure, for as long as possible.
It is true that genetic predisposition, and often what seems to be
just malign chance, can govern the individual health- experience. Up until the latter half of the 20th century,
“God’s will” or simply fate, was generally considered an adequate explanation
of health-experience and survival. Now, in great contrast to this, these things
are understood to be substantially under our control and influenced by our own
choices. Even when there is a
strong familial predisposition to certain disorders (relatively uncommon) the
way we live will act on top of this to extend even a relatively poor outlook.
eventually “pass on to their rest.” Healthy living does not prevent most
chronic diseases, but instead delays them—often by up to 10 years. So it is
that Adventists, as represented in the Adventist Health Study, enjoy, on
average, greater life expectancy, and these extra years are generally of good
quality. In the end, however, we
develop most of the same afflictions—just much later. We have, as a people, enjoyed these marvelous and valuable
benefits now for more than 100 years—at least this is true for those Adventists
who choose to be guided by our health message. Unfortunately our research shows that even Adventists, on
average, are losing about 5 years of potential life resulting from less than
ideal choices about how they live their lives.
Then there are the
“vegetarian wars.” Which is best, vegan (eat no animal products) or lacto-ovo
vegetarianism (eat dairy and/or eggs)? There are strongly held opinions that are
sometimes based on presumed health effects but perhaps in some cases, are built
more on arguments of attaining greater moral or spiritual purity. In my view
these latter motivations are ill-founded.
We find in Romans 14:17 (NKJV), and several other supporting verses, a key principle: “For the
kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy
in the Holy Spirit.” I will not
here address the issue of possibly different health effects either, as it is a
little early in our study to yet be sure. It is interesting to point out,
however, that on average the Adventist lacto-ovo-vegetarians are not so far
removed from the vegans, in that they typically have low intakes of dairy and
eggs. Nevertheless vegans do have somewhat higher intakes of fruit and
vegetables, and of the various nutrients and vitamins that go along with this.
The vegetarians have less diabetes, hypertension, and a lower frequency of high cholesterol. Typically the vegetarian advantage translates to a risk of about 30 to 50 percent lower than the non-vegetarian Adventists.
What does the study
tell us about the health experience of Adventist vegetarians (different types
grouped together) as compared to Adventist non-vegetarians who eat meats at
least once per week? There are major differences, despite the fact that the
non-vegetarians are eating, on average, less than 2 ounces of meat (red and
white together) each day. In our Western society of excessive caloric intake,
the vegetarians are much thinner, although it is only the vegans who on average
are not still overweight. The vegetarians have less diabetes, hypertension, and
a lower frequency of high cholesterol. Typically the vegetarian advantage
translates to a risk of about 30 to 50 percent lower than the non-vegetarian
Adventists. So these are all cardiovascular risk factors. Does this translate to a lower risk of
heart attack, as we may expect?
Our best look at
this so far comes from the older AHS-1 study of 34,000 Adventists in
California, USA, and there the risk of heart attack was indeed 40-50% lower in
Cancer is not a
single disease as cancers at different body sites (breast, colon, etc.), have
different causes, although some of these often overlap. Not all cancers are
sensitive to diet. Within the next year the cancer results from our present
AHS-2 study will be published. It is clear that colorectal cancer is lower in
vegetarians, and this is no surprise as many studies (including AHS-1) have
agreed that red meat consumption increases risk of this cancer substantially.
Overall we find that the Adventist vegetarians have 10-12% less cancer than the
non-vegetarians, but this varies a good deal from cancer to cancer. We are not
aware yet of any cancers that are more frequent in the vegetarians but for some
there will be no clear advantage and for other cancers there will be a 20-40%
decreased risk for the vegetarians.
Look for further details to be published soon.
Loma Linda, the
town surrounding the Adventist university and medical institution of the same
name, has become somewhat famous as the only American “Blue Zone.” This is a term coined by National
Geographic writer Dan Buettner, and refers to areas on the earth where there is
unusual longevity. Actually it is not really Loma Linda, but Adventists all
over the state of California (from the AHS-1 study) who contributed to this
striking observation. Specifically, Adventist men live more than seven years
longer than non-Adventist Californian men, and Adventist women about four and a
half years longer than non-Adventist counterparts. These are large differences.
Moreover, as shown in Figure 1, for both physical and mental quality of life,
at virtually every age, for both men and women, Adventists (both Black and
White) do better than United States’ national norms. So, fewer diseases not
only improves longevity, but ensures that the extra years are of relatively
good quality, on average.
Although I focus here on eating and diet, which are important influences on health, there are other factors to be considered.
Although I focus
here on eating and diet, which are important influences on health, there are
other factors to be considered.
activity, preserving at least some strong social relationships, and certain
aspects of religious belief and observance, all have significant effects.
analyses lead us to believe that the influence of religious commitment is most
marked on mental health.
In summary, Adventism is a strong force for
improved health maintenance.
This comes from the recommendations and social
pressures favoring a plant-based
diet as well as from the teaching of food preparation skills. Changes in
attitudes and values that come from having a spiritual connection, and a
healthy lifestyle that we adopt, do matter. Finally, there is the mental
benefit of social support that comes from belonging to a close-knit group, and
the positive influence of a right relationship with God. Overall, a package