Buddhist Diet: How It Works and What to Eat
Like many religions, Buddhism has dietary restrictions and food traditions.
Buddhists — those who practice Buddhism — follow the teachings of the Buddha or “awakened one” and adhere to specific diet laws.
Whether you’re new to Buddhism or want to practice only certain aspects of the religion, you may wonder what those dietary customs entail.
This article explains everything you need to know about the Buddhist diet.
Buddhism dietary practices
Siddhartha Gautama, or the ”Buddha,” founded Buddhism in the 5th to 4th century B.C. in the eastern part of India. Today, it’s practiced worldwide.
Several forms of Buddhism exist globally, including Mahayana, Theravada, and Vajrayana. Each type has slightly different interpretations of Buddha’s teaching, particularly when it comes to dietary practices.
Five ethical teachings govern how Buddhists live.
One of the teachings prohibits taking the life of any person or animal. Many Buddhists interpret this to mean that you should not consume animals, as doing so would require killing.
Buddhists with this interpretation usually follow a lacto-vegetarian diet. This means they consume dairy products but exclude eggs, poultry, fish, and meat from their diet.
On the other hand, other Buddhists consume meat and other animal products, as long as the animals aren’t slaughtered specifically for them.
Nonetheless, most dishes considered Buddhist are vegetarian, despite not all traditions requiring lay followers of Buddhism to follow this diet.
Alcohol and other restrictions
Another ethical teaching of Buddhism prohibits intoxication from alcohol given that it clouds the mind and can lead you to break other religious rules.
Still, lay followers of the religion often disregard this teaching, as some traditional ceremonies incorporate alcohol.
Aside from alcohol, some Buddhists avoid consuming strong-smelling plants, specifically garlic, onion, chives, leeks, and shallots, as these vegetables are thought to increase sexual desire when eaten cooked and anger when eaten raw.
Fasting refers to abstaining from all or certain types of foods or drinks.
The practice — specifically intermittent fasting — is becoming increasingly popular for weight loss, but it’s also often done for religious purposes.
Buddhists are expected to abstain from food from noon until the dawn of the following day as a way to practice self-control.
However, as with the exclusion of meat and alcohol, not all Buddhists or lay followers of the religion fast.
Like other religions, Buddhism has specific dietary practices that followers may or may not practice. Some Buddhists may fast or refrain from consuming animals, alcohol, and certain vegetables.
Diet pros and cons
Every diet, including the Buddhist diet, has pros and cons to consider.
A Buddhist diet follows a primarily plant-based approach.
A plant-based diet is rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains, legumes, and beans, but it may also include some animal products.
This diet provides important compounds, such as antioxidants, phytochemicals, vitamins, minerals, and fiber, which have been associated with a decreased risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer.
Aside from these health benefits, following a plant-based or vegetarian diet may also benefit your waistline.
One study demonstrated that Buddhists who followed a vegetarian diet for 11–34 years had less body fat than those who followed the diet for 5–10 years — and even less body fat than those who followed it for 3–4 years.
Vegetarian diets that restrict the intake of meat can be deficient in certain nutrients if they aren’t planned appropriately — even if they permit eggs and dairy.
Studies have found that Buddhist lacto-vegetarians had calorie intakes similar to those of non-vegetarian Catholics. However, they had higher intakes of folate, fiber, and vitamin A and consumed less protein and iron.
Consequently, they had lower levels of iron and vitamin B12. Low levels of these nutrients can cause anemia, a condition characterized by a lack of oxygen-carrying red blood cells.
Aside from iron and vitamin B12, other nutrients that vegetarians may be lacking include vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acids, and zinc.
Still, it’s possible to consume a nutritionally adequate vegetarian diet by planning properly and taking supplements to fill any nutritional gaps.
Pros and cons of fasting
Fasting is an important practice in Buddhism. Buddhists generally fast from noon to dawn of the following day.
Depending on your preferences and schedule, you may find fasting for approximately 18 hours every day to either be a pro or con of the Buddhist diet.
Consuming your entire daily calorie intake before noon can not only be physically difficult but also interfere with your social and professional life.
On the other hand, you may find fasting convenient and helpful for weight loss, if that’s a goal of yours.
In a 4-day study in 11 overweight adults, those fasting for 18 hours had better blood sugar control and increased expression of genes involved in autophagy — a process that replaces damaged cells with healthy ones — compared with those fasting for 12 hours.
While these results are promising, longer studies are necessary to make definitive conclusions about whether the practice is superior to a standard reduced-calorie diet for weight loss and other health benefits.
Given that the Buddhist diet consists primarily of plants, it may lack certain vitamins and minerals, particularly iron and vitamin B12. Fasting, while an important component of Buddhism, may not be for everyone.
Foods to eat and avoid
While not all Buddhists are vegetarians, many choose to follow a vegetarian or lacto-vegetarian diet.
Here are examples of foods to eat and avoid on a lacto-vegetarian diet:
Foods to eat
- Dairy: yogurt, cottage cheese, and milk
- Grains: bread, oatmeal, quinoa, and rice
- Fruits: apples, bananas, berries, grapes, oranges, and peaches
- Vegetables: broccoli, tomatoes, green beans, cucumber, zucchini, asparagus, and peppers
- Starchy vegetables: potatoes, corn, peas, and cassava
- Legumes: chickpeas, kidney beans, pinto beans, black beans, and lentils
- Nuts: almonds, walnuts, pecans, and pistachios
- Oils: olive oil, flaxseed oil, and canola oil
Foods to avoid
- Meats: beef, veal, pork, and lamb
- Fish: salmon, herring, cod, tilapia, trout, and tuna
- Eggs and poultry: eggs, chicken, turkey, duck, quail, and pheasant
- Pungent vegetables and spices: onions, garlic, scallions, chives, and leeks
- Alcohol: beer, wine, and spirits
While it’s not a requirement of practicing Buddhism, many follow a vegetarian or lacto-vegetarian diet that also excludes alcohol and pungent vegetables and spices.
Sample menu for 1 day
Below is a 1-day sample menu of a lacto-vegetarian Buddhist diet:
- 1 cup (33 grams) of breakfast cereal fortified with vitamin B12 and iron
- 1/2 cup (70 grams) of blueberries
- 1 ounce (28 grams) of almonds
- 1 cup (240 mL) of low fat milk
- 1 cup (240 mL) of coffee
A sandwich made with:
- 2 slices of whole wheat bread
- 2 low fat cheese slices
- 1 large lettuce leaf
- 2 slices of avocado
As well as a side of:
- 3 ounces (85 grams) of fresh carrot sticks
- 1 banana
- 1 cup (240 mL) of unsweetened tea
- 6 whole grain crackers
- 1 cup (227 grams) of Greek yogurt
- 1/2 cup (70 grams) of apricots
- 1 ounce (28 grams) of unsalted peanuts
A burrito made with:
- 1 whole wheat tortilla
- 1/2 cup (130 grams) of refried beans
- 1/4 cup (61 grams) of diced tomato
- 1/4 cup (18 grams) of shredded cabbage
- 1/4 cup (25 grams) of shredded cheese
- 2 tablespoons (30 grams) of salsa
- Spanish rice made from 1 cup (158 grams) of brown rice, 1/2 cup (63 grams) of zucchini, and 1/2 tablespoon (7 mL) of olive oil
If you choose to fast, you would consume these meals and snacks before noon.
A lacto-vegetarian Buddhist diet should contain a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and dairy.
The bottom line
Buddhists are encouraged to follow specific dietary guidelines. These differ depending on the form of Buddhism and individual preferences.
Many Buddhists follow a lacto-vegetarian diet, avoid alcohol and certain vegetables, and practice fasting from noon to sunrise the following day.
That said, the diet is flexible, no matter if you’re a lay follower of Buddhism or wish to practice only certain aspects of the religion.
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