Talking Turkey

In a few days we’ll celebrate Thanksgiving, a day traditionally set apart by our nation to gather with family and friends and give thanks to God for his bounty. It’s been a national holiday since Abraham Lincoln established it in the midst of the Civil War (take a look at his Thanksgiving Proclamation). But when we talk about the “First Thanksgiving” we look further back, to the year 1621, and the harvest celebration of a group of English Separatists in Plymouth, Massachusetts—the men and women we call “Pilgrims.” After a harsh winter, and many tragic deaths, they began anew in a new land, planting and fishing and hunting, assisted by neighboring Wampanoag Indians. They brought in the harvest and gave thanks to God (learn about the history at Plimouth Plantation).

That’s not just a bit of national history for me—an ancestor of mine, Mary Chilton, was a young orphan at that feast, her mother having died during the winter and her father having died at Cape Cod before they landed.

They were a religious people, who had come to worship him in freedom; they were staunch Calvinists, trusting always to Divine Providence.

I think we as a nation have forgotten that.

A few days ago I Googled “Thanksgiving Day” and “God”—I got 723,000 hits. “Thanksgiving” and “Pilgrims,” only 179,000. But “Turkey Day”? That got 3,800,000. And “Black Friday”—the day of department store sales—nearly 8 million.

We keep the holiday on the calendar, and the name, “Thanksgiving,” but the God we are to thank and the story of the Pilgrims have been buried beneath advertisements of sales and the mountain of food we gorge upon.

It’s a day in which our wallet gets thinner and our waist gets wider. A day for stuffing not only a turkey, but ourselves.

And that’s what I want to reflect on now. I want to talk some turkey about what we eat.

How much do we eat on Thanksgiving? The Calorie Control Council, which represents producers of low calorie foods, says on its webpage:

… the average American may consume more than 4,500 calories and a whopping 229 grams of fat from snacking and eating a traditional holiday dinner with turkey and all the trimmings. And these figures don’t even include breakfast or the late evening munching on leftovers!

…That’s the equivalent of more than 2 ¼ times the average daily calorie intake and almost 3 ½ times the fat. The typical holiday dinner can be loaded with 45 percent of calories from fat. In fact, the average person may consume enough fat at a holiday meal to equal three sticks of butter.

Food was certainly a part of the first Thanksgiving: corn and pumpkin, fish and clams and lobsters, turkey and deer—washed down with warm homemade beer. But the Pilgrims were a thin and hardy bunch, like the wild turkeys on their tables—they normally ate a meager diet and they worked hard outdoors. But we’ve grown fat and lazy. Time magazine says 67% of us are overweight. I am. I can’t believe it. I was so skinny growing up. I weighed 145 lbs. when I got married 26 years ago. For many years I stayed at 185, which doctors say is my ideal weight. I’m now 220—35 lbs overweight. Fourteen more pounds and I would be officially obese.

How did we get to this point?—by eating too much of the wrong stuff and not exercising.

The problem of eating the wrong stuff was dramatized by film maker Morgan Spurlock in his 2004 documentary, Super Size Me, in which he made himself the guinea pig of an experiment. He ate all his meals at McDonald’s for a month. When they said, “Would you like to Super Size that?” He would.

Spurlock packed away 5000 calories a day, twice what a man needs. And he purposely didn’t do any exercise. 1/3 of his calories came from sugar—in a month he ate (and drank) 30 pounds of it. He gained 25 pounds, and seriously damaged his body, especially his liver. His organs began to shut down. His doctors warned he would kill himself if he kept it up.

But we can’t blame McDonald’s, because he could have made better choices from the menu. He could have eaten less. He could have exercised. In fact, another film maker, Soso Whaley, was so outraged by this that she made her own movie, “Me and Mickey D,” in which she ate at McDonald’s every day for two months—and lost 18 pounds. The difference? She ate a balanced diet, she ate no more than 2000 calories a day, and she skipped the so-called “value meals.”

Another recent book to examine what we eat looked at just one thing: a familiar golden sponge cake with a cream filling. The Twinkie. In his book, Twinkie Deconstructed, Steve Ettlinger tries to figure out where each ingredient comes from, from simple things like wheat and corn and salt and water to those strange sounding ingredients: sodium acid pyrophosphate, monocalcium phosphate, Mono and diglycerides, Polysorbate 60, Calcium caseinate, Sodium stearol lactylate, Calcium sulfate, Sorbic acid, and artificial colors. He tracks down each one, and the process by which they are made. His discoveries are shocking. The ingredients include animal, vegetable and mineral. His journey takes him from “phosphate mines in Idaho to corn fields in Iowa, from gypsum mines in Oklahoma to oil fields in China.” Yes, oil fields. A number of the ingredients are petrochemicals. All this to make something that lasts longer on the shelf than it would if made from ordinary pronounceable ingredients like flour, sugar, milk, butter, and vanilla. And it won’t last forever—only about 25 days. But it’s typical of so many processed foods lining the shelves of our grocery stores.

And how about the star attraction of most Thanksgiving dinners, the Turkey? Most of the 72,000,000 turkeys that are slaughtered for Thanksgiving each year are raised not on picturesque farms in the country, but in dreary factory farms.

In 2006, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) did an undercover investigation at a Butterball factory farm in Ozark, Arkansas. An investigation by the US Department of Agriculture confirmed their findings:

  • Employees intentionally and repeatedly injured or killed birds by kicking, punching, throwing, or stepping on them.
  • One worker saw other workers bash live turkeys against trucks, shackles, and the floor. He recalled seeing approximately 200 birds whose necks had been broken or who had been decapitated in one day alone.
  • Birds’ wings were often injured or broken because the birds were roughly yanked out of transport cages.

But because there are no federal laws protecting chickens and turkeys slaughtered for food, no federal charges could be filed, and the state refused to prosecute under Arkansas law. Even more horrendous things were discovered this year in a similar investigation of the world’s leading poultry breeding company, Aviagen Turkeys, Inc. You can see the videos at the PETA webpage.

This abuse is just the tip of the iceberg. A book that goes much further in revealing how food animals are treated is Eric Schlosser’s 2001 expose, Fast Food Nation. He looks at the meat packing industry, and how it treats both the workers and the animals destined for slaughter. They are assembly line operations, and supervisors want the lines moving at a fast pace. As a result, injuries to workers are common. And in the rapid ripping open of animal carcasses, the contents of their intestines sometimes spill onto the meat, often resulting in E. Coli contamination (take a look at some cartoons that were made to promote the movie: The Meatrix).

This is the backbone of the American diet: animals sadistically and unhygienically slaughtered, and processed and fast foods high in cholesterol, fat, and sugar. The result: we suffer from obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure.

I do have some good news for you, however.

There’s a better way. There’s a book that suggests a diet that will prevent most of these problems. You don’t have to wait for Oprah to talk about it—it’s from a book she’ll never recommend. You don’t have to sit through a 30 minute infomercial to find out how you can order it by phone. Chances are, you already have a copy.

Turn with me to Genesis 1, the story of the creation, starting with v. 27.

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth. And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat.

This was man’s original diet: every plant that bears seeds—apples and oranges, pears and pomegranates, melons and squash, berries and nuts and grains.

After man’s fall there’s a change, as we read in Genesis 3:18-18. Man is now to till the ground, which is cursed.

Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.

Now man is going to be a farmer. He’s going to grow crops and eat them. He’s going to cultivate wheat and rye and barley and corn, and turn them into bread. He’s going to take a weed like the wild mustard, and domesticate it, and train it to grow in different ways, to create cultivars, which are all the same species even if they look wildly different: from wild mustard came such different things as broccoli and Brussels sprouts, kale, collards, kohlrabi, and cauliflower.

But no hamburgers or roast turkey.

It’s only after the flood, we read in Genesis 9, that man is given permission to eat meat: in the face of the devastation of the earth God tells Noah, “every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you.” But already God had separated animals into two groups, clean and unclean. Genesis 7, v. 2:

Take with you seven of every kind of clean animal, a male and its mate, and two of every kind of unclean animal, a male and its mate, and also seven of every kind of bird, male and female, to keep their various kinds alive throughout the earth

Because he had seven of each bird, he could let out a dove, and when it didn’t come back he still had others that could breed. He could offer a sacrifice of a sheep, and still have others to breed—and to eat.

But notice something else. Immediately after God gives permission to eat meat we see that the life span of man decreases. Where before the flood men were living 800, 900 years or more, afterwards the lifespan rapidly decreases until the oldest men are 120, and the average lifespan is threescore and ten.

God gave some other dietary laws to Israel. We read about them in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14. You know the lists. Sea creatures must have fins and scales. Land animals must have cloven hooves and chew the cud. Ducks and geese and chicken are OK, but not birds of prey or scavengers. And stay away from creeping things: mice and snakes and turtles and snails and lizards and moles.

God doesn’t give a reason for the distinctions. Many scholars say it was to remind Israel that it was separate from the nations. And that would certainly be in keeping with Peter’s vision in Acts 10—he is told in vision to eat unclean meat, and he understands it to mean that he cannot distinguish between Jews and Gentiles.

But maybe there was something else going on, too.

God said in Exodus 15:26

If thou wilt diligently hearken to the voice of the LORD thy God, and wilt do that which is right in his sight, and wilt give ear to his commandments, and keep all his statutes, I will put none of these diseases upon thee, which I have brought upon the Egyptians: for I am the LORD that healeth thee.

God doesn’t say in Leviticus 11, “I’m forbidding pork because it is unhealthy”—he just says, “Do it. You shall be holy, set apart, because I am holy.” But remember, this is not a new rule. Noah knew about the distinction long before Moses’ time. And God says here that he would preserve them from the diseases that afflicted the Gentile nations. One sure way to avoid many of those diseases would be a sort of quarantine. Don’t eat the same food they do.

This becomes an issue for Daniel and his companions when they were led as captives to Babylon, and the chief of the eunuchs was put in charge of them to train them for service in the royal court. The king was generous to them, feeding them from his rich table, as we read in Daniel 1:8ff.

But Daniel purposed in his heart that he would not defile himself with the portion of the king’s meat, nor with the wine which he drank: therefore he requested of the prince of the eunuchs that he might not defile himself. … “Prove thy servants, I beseech thee, ten days; and let them give us pulse to eat, and water to drink. Then let our countenances be looked upon before thee, and the countenance of the children that eat of the portion of the king’s meat: and as thou seest, deal with thy servants.”

What is pulse? Most other translations use the word, “vegetables.”

So he consented to them in this matter, and proved them ten days. And at the end of ten days their countenances appeared fairer and fatter in flesh than all the children which did eat the portion of the king’s meat.

They ate the original diet God gave to man—even though God had given permission to eat meat. And they were better off for it.

And this is God’s intent. God wants us to be healthy. As we read in John’s third epistle, verse 2: “Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth.”

This raises a question: Will we be better off if we eat man’s original diet? What does science tell us?

Consider the 2006 bestseller, The China Study, by T. Colin Campbell, Ph.D., professor of Nutritional Biochemistry at Cornell University. He was director of a major study of cancer across China. They noticed some diseases were almost entirely absent in many rural areas but common in affluent areas, including many cancers, diabetes, and heart disease. But even these were less common in China than in the United States. What was going on? It was their diet. They were able to demonstrate a correlation between diet and disease.

“People who ate the most animal-based foods got the most chronic disease. …. People who ate the most plant-based foods were the healthiest and tended to avoid chronic disease.” (p. 7)

The lesson for us is clear, Campbell says. It’s so simple you can reduce it to one sentence:

“Eat a whole foods, plant-based diet, while minimizing the consumption of refined foods, added salt and added fats.” (p. 242)

The current recommendations from our federal government make many of the same points. We used to have the four food groups, then a food pyramid. You can find the current version at

  • Make half your grains whole
  • Vary your veggies
  • Focus on fruit
  • Get your calcium rich foods
    • Fat free milk products
    • Soybeans, some other dried beans, some dark green leafy vegetables
  • Go lean with protein
    • Dry peas and beans, nuts, tofu
  • Make physical activity a regular part of the day

None of this should be new for Seventh-day Adventists. Health reform has been an important part of our message for over 150 years. The first Seventh-day Adventist to be a health reformer was Joseph Bates, and he had begun changing his diet long before he became an Adventist. He gave up tobacco in 1823, throwing it over the side of the ship; he gave up alcohol in 1824, and then banned it from his ship. Around seven years later he was visiting some friends and was served tea that was stronger than he usually drank, and found that he couldn’t get to sleep that night. He resolved then to give up tea, and, a little while later, coffee. By 1843 he was a vegetarian.

He slowly persuaded others, both by his own example and by Bible teaching. So health reform was beginning to be known to Adventists before Ellen White had a vision on the subject in 1863. Four years later the Western Health Reform Institute was established in Battle Creek. It focused on natural methods of healing, and use of drug free remedies, including hydrotherapy. It promoted a vegetarian diet, of whole grains, fruits, vegetables and water. In encouraged exercise, fresh air, and exposure to sunlight. In 1876 a new doctor took over, 24 year old John Harvey Kellogg; James and Ellen White saw promise in him, and paid for his education at Bellvue Hospital Medical College. He changed the institute’s name to the Battle Creek Sanitarium. He coined the term, “sanitarium,” to emphasize it wasn’t a place just to get over a disease, but to learn how to live right.

That beginning led our church to establish a string of hospitals around the world, as well as health education programs such as vegetarian cooking schools and the Five Day Plan to Stop Smoking.

We don’t believe health reform saves–Jesus saves. But Jesus doesn’t just want us to get to heaven, he wants us to have life now, and have it more abundantly. He wants us to be healthy, and has given us in his word some basic principles that will lead to health.

Besides the Biblical passages, we’ve also spoken of the “Eight Laws of Health,” which can be stated simply:

  • Nutrition
  • Exercise
  • Water
  • Sunshine
  • Temperance
  • Air
  • Rest
  • Trust in Divine Power

This is the Seventh-day Adventist vision for healthful living. Is it relevant today? I think it is. As I stated at the beginning, we have a health crisis in this country. Our meat supply is contaminated. We use too many processed foods. We use too much fat and sugar. And science shows that if we eat the kind of diet Seventh-day Adventists have always recommended, we will be healthier and live longer.

And the world is eager to know what many of us have forgotten. Vegetarianism was once a curiosity; now it’s popular. There are vegetarian restaurants all over town, some run by Hindus and Buddhists. Whole Foods Market and HEB and Fiesta and Randalls are all sensitive to the needs of vegetarians. My daughter will even be having vegan cooking as part of her PE class next year.

What we offer, along with these others, is a better way to live. Healthy living shouldn’t be about guilt, or fear, or putting ourselves above others, or clubbing them over the head. It should be a simple matter of trying to do what is right for our own bodies.

Thanksgiving is coming up on Thursday. Give the turkey a break. Fix a healthy meal. Here are some places to give you some ideas:

Enjoy your time with family and friends, but don’t over do it. You really don’t need to eat 4500 calories in one sitting. Take it easy. And after that nap, go out for a walk or a bike ride.

But most importantly, take time to offer praise and thanks to God for all his gifts. That’s the real purpose of the day, is it not?