Where diverse traditions and lifestyles intersect, the significance of dietary choices becomes apparent. Many factors influence people’s eating habits, including religious and cultural practices. Here are eight world religions and cultures that focus on plant-based eating, and the spiritual and ethical reasons that guide these dietary preferences.
In Hinduism — particularly in India — the practice of vegetarianism holds significant prominence. Many Hindus choose a vegetarian lifestyle influenced by the concept of “ahimsa” or non-violence, which extends to human relationships and the treatment of animals.
The concept of ahimsa is so widely practiced that 80% of India limits its meat intake and four in 10 consider themselves completely vegetarian. This idea is rooted in the belief that all living beings possess a divine essence, promoting compassion and respect for all life forms. Karma and reincarnation are the beliefs that one’s actions affect one’s future existence, promoting responsible and compassionate living.
Here are some vegetarian staples that feature in many Hindu households:
- Dal (Lentil Curry): A staple dish made from lentils seasoned with spices like cumin, coriander and turmeric
- Chapati or roti: Flatbread made from whole wheat flour and water
- Aloo Gobi: A dry dish consisting of potatoes (aloo) and cauliflower (gobi), cooked with spices
- Chana Masala: Chickpeas cooked in a spiced tomato-based sauce, often served with bread or rice
- Samosa: Triangular pastry filled with spiced potatoes and peas, deep-fried until golden brown
Buddhism — emphasizing mindfulness and compassion — often leans toward plant-based eating. Monastic traditions in particular frequently advocate a vegetarian diet as part of the path to enlightenment. The Buddhist perspective highlights the interconnectedness of all living beings, encouraging adherents to make mindful choices that contribute to the well-being of the self and others.
This religion centers around two main concepts. Firstly, mindfulness is the practice of being present in the moment, which extends to food choices. By focusing on compassion, Buddhists also recognize the suffering of all beings and make choices that alleviate this harm. Here are some common dishes found in Buddhism-influenced cultures:
- Buddha’s Delight: A Chinese vegetarian dish that combines various vegetables, mushrooms, tofu and sometimes noodles
- Shojin Ryori: Traditional Japanese Buddhist temple cuisine featuring vegetables, pickles and rice
Jainism takes the concept ahimsa to a more stringent level. Followers of Jainism adhere to a strict vegetarian diet, often avoiding root vegetables to minimize harm to the smallest forms of life. The emphasis on compassion and non-violence is integral to Jain dietary practices and they focus primarily on plant-based eating.
Some common Jain meals include:
- Kichdi: A simple dish made from rice and lentils, often seasoned with minimal spices and served with ghee for flavor
- Dal Dhokli: Wheat flour dumplings simmered in a spiced lentil soup
- Moong Dal Chilla: Savoury pancakes made from ground green gram and spices, usually served with chutney
4. Ethiopian Cuisine
Ethiopian culture is rooted in rich traditions, vibrant colors, communal dining practices, and plenty of beans and vegetables. At the heart of Ethiopian food is injera — a spongy sourdough flatbread that’s often the foundation of most meals. They eat a variety of stews using different herbs and spices. Lentils, chickpeas and vegetables play a central role in creating vegetarian dishes, making Ethiopian cuisine particularly appealing to plant-based eaters.
These eating habits are a result of the country’s cultural and religious practices. The prevalence of fasting periods within the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian tradition — which requires abstaining from animal products — has significantly influenced the development of diverse and flavorful plant-based dishes.
Fasting is a common practice during specific religious seasons, creating an extensive range of vegetarian recipes. Additionally, abundant fertile land and favorable growing conditions allow various vegetables, lentils, and legumes to thrive, making plant-based eating a cultural and practical choice. In Asian and African countries — including Ethiopia — up to 50% of the population is lactose intolerant, which is a large reason why milk and milk-based products aren’t the main focus of their diets.
Ethiopians typically eat the following plant-based dishes:
- Misir Wat: A flavorful red lentil stew seasoned with berbere spice, onions, garlic and ginger
- Shiro Wat: A thick stew made from ground chickpeas, lentils or peas, combined with spices and seasoned with berbere
- Azifa: A green lentil salad marinated with mustard, green pepper and onions
- Fasolia: Green beans and carrots cooked with onions, garlic, and tomatoes, seasoned with spices
5. Seventh-Day Adventists
Seventh-Day Adventists often adopt a vegetarian or plant-based diet guided by their Christian faith. They live in an area known as the Blue Zones, where people typically live longer and have lower rates of chronic diseases than the rest of the world. The church emphasizes the holistic nature of health, viewing the body as a temple they need to care for.
Many Adventists find resonance in the biblical call for a plant-based diet in Genesis. Followers of this religion believe plant-based eating habits promote mental, physical and spiritual well-being, as well as how people’s dietary choices can impact the planet.
Rastafarians practice “Ital livity” — a dietary lifestyle rooted in the belief that consuming natural, unprocessed foods brings followers closer to Jah (God). This belief often translates into a plant-based diet that excludes processed and chemically altered foods.
Rastafarians view food choices as a way of connecting with the divine, emphasizing natural and organic foods to improve overall well-being. Some typical Rastafarian dishes include:
- Ital stew: A hearty stew made with a variety of vegetables like okra, callaloo, carrots, and sweet potatoes in spices and coconut milk
- Rice and peas: A classic Jamaican dish made with coconut milk, kidney beans and rice, usually flavored with onions and garlic
- Curried vegetables: A curry dish featuring a mix of vegetables like potatoes, carrots and cauliflower cooked in a spiced coconut milk sauce
7. Mediterranean Cuisine
An abundance of fresh, seasonal produce, olive oil and herbs characterizes Mediterranean eating. This cuisine reflects a commitment to wholesome, plant-forward eating. It’s most well-known for its health benefits, emphasizing fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes.
Dishes like Greek salads and ratatouille are packed with a medley of vegetables and healthy fats like olive oil that reduce your risk of heart disease by thirty percent. Olives, figs and nuts are key components in numerous meals, while herbs like oregano and basil enhance them.
People celebrate the Mediterranean diet for its association with longevity and well-being. The region’s climate and fertile soil contribute to the high-quality produce, making these ingredients a natural choice for daily meals. Historical and cultural factors — such as the influence of ancient Greek and Roman dietary practices — have shaped the cuisine, valuing plant-based ingredients’ simplicity and nutritional richness.
In Confucianism, the principles of balance and harmony extend to dietary choices. While not strictly vegetarian, Confucian teachings emphasize moderation and balance in all aspects of life, including eating habits. Plant-based foods play a crucial role in achieving this equilibrium. Some dietary rules of Confucianism include:
- Don’t eat food that smells bad
- Don’t eat food out of season
- Eat fresh and local foods
- Don’t eat foods that haven’t been prepared correctly
- Eat only at meal times
Plant-Based Eating Across Cultures
Plant-based eating isn’t always a dietary choice — the decision is often deeply rooted in ethical and spiritual beliefs. These diverse traditions span the globe, encouraging a more conscious and compassionate approach to food consumption.