Paul Rankin has spent his life as a vegetarian.
It’s not for animal rights reasons or to reduce his environmental impact — though he thinks they’re both worthy causes. It’s because he’s a Seventh-day Adventist.
His Christian denomination has promoted healthy living and abstinence from alcohol, tobacco and recreational drugs since its inception in the 1800s.
“The Adventist Church believes that the human being can’t be subdivided into different parts like soul, mind and spirit — they’re all integrated,” says Paul Rankin, who is health director for the church.
“The healthier we are, the more we can serve God. And so, the church doesn’t mandate, but advocates a whole-food, plant-based diet.”
Meat-free diets aren’t always nutritious, says Mr Rankin, who struggled with weight problems for decades.
“I used to be 45 kilos heavier than I am now … I was pushing 50, and my blood pressure and cholesterol levels were really high. My blood sugar levels were borderline type 2 diabetes.”
Following concern from his doctor, Mr Rankin dramatically changed the way he ate, replacing processed items with “whole foods”, such as whole grains, tubers, legumes, fruits and vegetables, and increased his level of exercise.
“I took some of the principles that Adventism had been teaching me for a long time and really applied them to my life,” he says.
“My religious background made it easier for me to accept and adopt those changes.”
Breakfast of Adventists
There are 63,000 Seventh-day Adventists in Australia, according to the most recent Census, but the influence of this denomination stretches far beyond its pews.
Indeed, a slice of the Adventist health philosophy can be found in kitchen cupboards across the country.
Sanitarium, which produces Weetbix, UP&GO and a range of non-dairy milks, is wholly owned by the church.
“One of the early pioneers of the Adventist Church, by the name of Kellogg — whose brother started Kellogg’s food company — decided that bacon and eggs wasn’t a good way to have breakfast, and that wholegrain cereals were much better,” Mr Rankin says.
He says Sanitarium was established in Australia in 1898 to cater to members of the church who were struggling to get products, but the cereal began appealing to a much wider market.
Longer lives, lower health risks
Not all Seventh-day Adventists are vegetarian. “You don’t get kicked out if you eat a beef sandwich,” says Mr Rankin, laughing.
But members of the church, particularly in one Californian community, have been found to reap the benefits of healthy living.
In 2008, National Geographic fellow Dan Buettner published a best-selling book that catalogued five so-called “blue zones” where residents enjoyed longer life expectancy rates.
The 9,000-strong Adventist community in Loma Linda, California, made the list.
Buettner found the residents live “as much as a decade longer than the rest of us”, due to their vegetarian diet, regular exercise, and abstinence from alcohol and cigarettes.
For Geraldine Przybylko, a health strategy consultant for the church, it’s a record that should be celebrated.
The cost of a Western diet
Ms Przybylko first came to Adventism and its dietary recommendation after a health scare — though not her own.
Her mother, a professor of nursing, was travelling in Mongolia when she had a brain aneurism and had to be evacuated to Hong Kong for an urgent operation.
At the time, Ms Przybylko was living in London working for American Express. Upon hearing the news, she hopped on a plane for Hong Kong and prayed for the entire journey.
“I remember saying, ‘God, you know I believe in you and although I haven’t been following you, I know that you’re the only one who can save my mother’s life.'”
After her mother’s recovery, Ms Przybylko started embarking on a “journey for meaning”.
She investigated different religions, including Buddhism and Christianity, but found the principles and people from the Seventh-day Adventist Church resonated most.
She left her high-paying job in finance to become an Adventist missionary on the Pacific island of Guam — where she came face-to-face with the consequences of unhealthy Western diets.
Obesity and diabetes are major public health issues for Guam, and over the past 60 years the US territory has seen a steady increase in the number of deaths attributed to diabetes.
Struck by the impact of unhealthy diets, Ms Przybylko began giving up meat and fish. Vegetarianism is now a commitment she shares with her husband.
“My background is Asian, my husband is Polish, and so we’ve both been on the journey to have a healthier lifestyle,” she says.
“As you can imagine, from a Polish background with lots of meat, there were some big changes.”
From Brazilian meats to brown rice
Patricia Goncalves has also farewelled many foods from her childhood — and homeland — since becoming an Adventist.
“I come from a coastal region of Brazil, so we’d eat a lot of seafood,” she says
“We’d eat meat three times a day — with rice or spaghetti or cassava.”
Ms Goncalves moved to Australia in her early 20s and — like Geraldine Przybylko — found Adventism through a medical emergency.
At the time, lacking English skills and money, she ignored a treatable infection. It soon spread to her kidneys, forcing her to go to hospital.
During her one-week hospital stay, a Brazilian friend introduced Ms Goncalves to a Portuguese-speaking Adventist pastor.
“At the time I didn’t know who the Adventists were, so I was not really interested in their religion,” recalls Ms Goncalves.
Reconnection with religion was not something Ms Goncalves anticipated.
Like the majority of Brazilians, she was baptised and raised Catholic, but found the devotion to saints was at odds with her own beliefs.
“I decided to leave the church when I was 15,” she recalls.
“I went to so many different religions trying to answer the questions I had from the Bible, but always something was missing.”
Now employed as a project coordinator with the Adventist Church, Ms Goncalves has embraced the faith’s beliefs and dietary recommendations — although parts have been harder to swallow than others.
One of the hardest things, she admits with a laugh, was “learning to eat brown rice”.