SHELBY, N.C. – The Rev. George Malkmus (search) often preaches about how he believes the world of proper eating began — or, in his opinion, vegan. "The Lord gave us everything we need in the Garden of Eden: fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds," the preacher-turned-diet adviser said in an interview at Hallelujah Acres, his North Carolina headquarters. "That's why we call the way we eat the 'Hallelujah Diet.' (search) We celebrate its true creator."
Malkmus's diet is one of a batch of Bible-based eating plans flooding bookstores and health food stores. Last summer's "What Would Jesus Eat?" (search) by Dr. Don Colbert, encourages eating non-animal-derived "living foods" and eschewing most "dead" or processed foods.
"The Weigh Down Diet" by Gwen Shamblin offers few food restrictions but encourages following "God's perfect boundaries of hunger and fullness."
Malkmus's diet — which draws, he says, from Genesis 1:29 (search) — bans all animal products except for honey and promotes an 80 percent raw diet.
And there's the newest addition to the growing Christian health genre, Jordan S. Rubin's"The Maker's Diet." (search) Drawn from the book of Leviticus, Rubin's diet encourages eating certain meat and dairy products and warns against an all-raw, vegan regimen.
"The healthiest diet is to consume meats, poultry, dairy, fruits and vegetables and to consume them in a form the body was designed for," Rubin said. He advises eating foods in their most organic and least-processed forms. Dairy, for instance, should not be pasteurized and defatted and pumped with hormones but rather taken as a yogurt drink derived from raw, fermented milk.
Meat or vegan? Raw or cooked? The abundance of allegedly godly guidance is enough to make the would-be dieter pray for divine intervention.
Elisabetta Politi, nutrition manager at Duke University's Diet and Fitness Center (search) in Durham, hopes people don't take the proposed diets too seriously.
"I am just thinking of the safety of having unprocessed dairy products. From a public health perspective, it's undoable," Politi said of Rubin's push for raw milk. "It's an extreme going back to an agriculture society that we are no longer."
There's nothing new about religious beliefs dictating what people put in their mouths. Some Jews keep kosher, while observant Muslims adhere to dietary requirements called halal. Generations of Catholics grew up not eating meat on Fridays.
But the new God-based diets target two specific audiences not generally thought of as compatible — evangelical Christians and what Politi calls the "back to nature" health buffs who gravitate toward an organic way of eating.
Rubin, a Messianic Jew, says he is a member of both clans. He peddles supplements and lifestyle products to the health food industry through his Garden of Life company. At the same time, he describes himself as a "biblical health coach."
"My ministry is to help change the health of this world one life at a time," he said.
Similar claims by Malkmus, Shamblin and others rankle those who see spinning the $40 billion diet industry to a Christian audience as just another way of using God as a gimmick.
"It's not just cashing in," said Stephen Barrett, a Columbia University-trained psychologist and founder of the Internet site "Quackwatch."
"I think that the people who promote these things, they're here to save the world and they preach and they're the Messiah (of health). Their personalities and characters have all sorts of grandiosity" and little scientific basis, Barrett said.
Politi applauds the focus on healthy eating, but adds, "I don't think it has to be confused with God."
Mainstream nutritional or medical credentials are hard to come by in this crowd. Rubin says he holds degrees in naturopathic medicine and nutrition, but both involved unaccredited programs and his degrees couldn't be verified.
Malkmus, who said he is not currently affiliated with a specific church, has no formal scientific training. But he does employ a researcher who determined that the Hallelujah diet was deficient in vitamin B-12.
"This shocked me, that God's perfect eating plan could have a flaw," Malkmus said. "But we realized that fruits and vegetables back then were more nutritious because of the topsoil."
Barrett sees the 70-year-old Malkmus — who claims he healed his own colon cancer through diet but doesn't furnish medical records — as the best of a bad lot.
"Malkmus has a little more ethics than (others)," he said.
Malkmus's argument that people who ate a raw diet in biblical times lived an average of 912 years gets little more than a laugh from Barrett and Politi.
"It can't be scientifically tested or proven," Barrett said of the contention.
Rubin claims his diet cured his Crohn's disease and sells dietary supplements under the Garden of Life label
Politi says she is "just very, very wary of the supplement industry" because it's not regulated, the claims aren't scientifically proven and it's expensive.
Rubin also recently launched a line of "advanced hygiene" soaps and argues that The Maker's Diet is about more than just eating — it's a whole way of life.
"When God gave me this health message I knew it would have a major impact on the world," he said. "Just as the Bible is the best selling book in history, I see no reason why 'The Maker's Diet' can't be the best selling health book in history."