The Seventh Day Adventist diet

photo from ThinkStock via Tri County Health Dept

photo from ThinkStock via Tri County Health Dept

Longer lives and healthy communities

Imagine living in an American community with no liquor stores or fast food restaurants. Physical activity is a regular community affair, as is stress relief. Your family meals and celebrations feature salad, fruit, and the occasional piece of fish. Feeling healthy yet?

For Seventh Day Adventists, this lifestyle is a reality– and the health benefits are unbelievable. Adventists follow biblical laws for treating the body like a temple: they avoid meat, alcohol, caffeine, and added sugars, while engaging in frequent exercise and Sabbath relaxation activities. It’s no surprise that this small Protestant population, in pursuit of spiritual health, is also achieving some of the best physical health in the world. In Loma Linda, California, where much of the population is Adventist, life expectancy is about six years longer than in other cities (with triple the rate of citizens reaching age one hundred). Loma Linda residents also get far fewer diseases and live more quality years of life than any other U.S. group.

As a student of dietetics, I find the relaxed, thriving Adventists fascinating. Where most Americans drink alcohol, eat meat, and take in excess sugars, Adventists eat mostly vegetarian goodness rich in essential nutrients. As a result, their blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar, and weight stay in check through middle age and beyond. One study found that vegan and vegetarian Adventists tend to have body mass indexes (BMIs) about five points lower than their non-vegetarian peers, with a healthy average of 24.6. The same study showed that vegetarian or semi-vegetarian Adventists had between 20% and 60% lower rates of Type 2 Diabetes. They even had up to 24% lower risk for certain cancers. Clearly, Adventist diets are helping individuals live with few diseases and risks, and represent a model of health for Americans.

While they achieve great individual health, Adventists have also managed to make their communities healthy for others. I had the opportunity to visit Loma Linda University and Loma Linda Medical Center for a workshop last year, and found that the healthy choice was often the easy choice, or the only choice. The hospital cafeteria was vegetarian and did not offer processed desserts or snacks. The surrounding community had no burger joints (it is frequently fighting the invasion of McDonald’s!), and the university had no vending machines or coffee carts for sugary beverages. Older adults were still cheerfully and ably working in both settings, often as professors and medical doctors. The Adventist lifestyle has affected the surroundings in healthy ways, reminding every community member to be healthy whether Adventist or not.

What I learned from this community is that idyllic, healthy environments can exist and thrive. Outside of these environments, we don’t all have to be vegetarian, or avoid alcohol completely, but the Adventist lifestyle can remind us to approach less nutritional foods with moderation. We have plenty to learn from Adventist habits—optimal health behaviors can help us and our neighbors to long and healthy lives, and our communities can change for the better when we live well.

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