Understanding Buddhist Patients’ Dietary Needs

Gihan ElGindy, RN, MSN Gihan ElGindy, RN, MSN

Because immigrants from Asian countries with large Buddhist populations are a rapidly growing minority group in the U.S., it’s important for nurses to understand Buddhist patients’ beliefs about health, illness and food
The love of nature and maximum enjoyment of what nature provides us is necessary in order to live a truly natural life. This is the main belief in many Asian cultures, such as those of China, Japan, Taiwan, Korea, Tibet, Sri Lanka, Thailand, India and the Philippines. While Christianity is the dominant religion in many of these countries, there are also significant numbers of Buddhists, along with Muslims, Hindus and atheists.

In the Buddhist faith, life revolves around nature with its two opposing energy systems, known in Chinese philosophy as yin and yang energy. Examples of these opposing energy forces, which are cyclical, include heat/cold, light/darkness, good/evil and sickness/health. Although a simple illness, such as a cold or flu, may be considered an imbalance of yin and yang energy, many Buddhists-though not all-believe that the best way to live a healthy life is to be a vegetarian.

The Buddhist tradition of vegetarianism has gained a great deal of popularity around the globe, as both a diet and a way of life. In the United States alone, there are about 20 million vegetarians. At the same time, in certain Asian cultures there has been a strong movement away from the traditional strict vegetarian diet as a result of these countries’ exposure to Islam and Christianity.

Part of being a culturally competent health care professional is being careful not to make blanket generalizations about patients from unfamiliar cultures-such as assuming that if a patient is an immigrant from an Asian country, he must be a Buddhist. Even if it is known for a fact that the patient’s religion is Buddhism, this does not necessarily mean that he or she strictly follows all Buddhist religious practices to the letter. It is vitally important for nurses to initiate dialogue with patients and their families in order to determine what, if any, cultural/religious needs and dietary restrictions must be accommodated to ensure the best possible healing process for the patient.

Understanding Buddhist Beliefs

The Buddha was born in what is now Nepal and founded Buddhism in India during the sixth century B.C. After Buddha’s death, his followers considered him a divine entity with the ability to lead them to Heaven.

This is a faith of supreme optimism that teaches self-control as a means to search for true happiness. Buddhists practice yoga and meditation as a means to reach spiritual emancipation or true liberation. Through mastering self-control, a Buddhist can reach full potential toward a journey of self-improvement during this life in order to achieve reincarnation, or rebirth after life. The rebirth process requires a desirable state of freedom or purity from primitive human desires and wishes.

The Buddhist code of morality is set forth in the Five Moral Precepts, which are:

1. Do not kill or harm living things.
2. Do not steal.
3. Do not engage in sexual misconduct.
4. Do not lie.
5. Do not consume intoxicants such as alcohol, tobacco or mind-altering drugs.

Buddhists believe that being careful in selecting the food one eats correlates with the amount of light in one’s body and the degree of power necessary to climb up the spiritual ladder-i.e., to reach the desirable state of relaxation and of being sincere to oneself and others. By following this path, one’s soul reaches harmony, the desirable spiritual status and/or the power of virtue necessary to attain the reincarnation process.

Buddhist Dietary Practices

In the teachings of Buddha, this concept of making the right food choices for spiritual enlightenment is exemplified by the “Five Contemplations While Eating.” Essentially, this means that Buddhists are exercising a special force related to “stopping and thinking” about the food they are eating.

(Interestingly, it is believed that the Buddha himself actually died from food poisoning.) A Buddhist asks himself these five basic but essential questions:

1. What food is this? = The origin of the food and how it reached me.
2. Where does it come from? = The amount of work necessary to grow the food, prepare it, cook it and bring it to the table.
3. Why am I eating it? = Do I deserve this food or not? Am I worthy of it?
4. When should I eat and benefit from this food? = Food is a necessity and a healing agent because I am subjected to illness without food.
5. How should I eat it? = Food is only received and eaten for the purpose of realizing the proper way to reach enlightenment.

Buddhists who are strict adherents to their faith depend not only on these Five Contemplations but also on the Five Moral Precepts to determine which foods are appropriate to consume and which are considered forbidden. In general, Buddhism prohibits the eating of any and all meat, because (1) the killing of animals violates the First Moral Precept and (2) meat is considered an intoxicant to the body, which violates the Fifth Moral Precept.

According to the Fifth Precept, consuming any type of intoxicants will reflect negatively on a Buddhist’s life and afterlife in the following ways:

o Effects on Self: It will distort and cloud one’s samadhi-i.e, it will hinder one’s judgment and decrease proper concentration necessary for meditation, which is the path to enlightenment.
o Effects on Others: It will increase one’s susceptibility to commit crimes and do wrong to others, which means loss of the desirable self-control.
o Religious/Spiritual Effects: It can cause bad karma (see Glossary) that harms other sentient beings and later on will haunt the original being.

Buddhists believe that whoever lives only for pleasure loses his soul’s harmony and the power of virtue. According to the “no killing” precept, whoever kills animals or eats meat will lose the “purity of both body and mind”-i.e., one gets all mixed up with the meat one eats and loses purity, clarity and the power of self-control. Buddhists also believe that causing the suffering of living creatures just to satisfy our taste buds is not a justifiable reason to eat meat. In Buddhists’ eyes, hunger is the minimal expression of compassion that can be offered and becoming a vegetarian is a choice-i.e., choosing not to kill animals (out of kindness) and not to eat them (out of compassion).

In addition to the physical suffering of animals, Buddhists believe that eating meat also causes another type of suffering: bad karma. Killing a sentient being forces it to begin a painful process of rebirth. Since Buddhists believe it is possible for animals to attain enlightenment, killing them deprives them of that chance. Eating a vegetarian diet helps ensure that the cycle of karmic retribution will be purified:

If you don’t eat animals, they won’t eat you. If you don’t kill them, they won’t kill you.

Other foods that may fall into the “forbidden” category include “the Five Pungent Spices.” This refers to onions, scallions, chives, garlic, etc. Traditionally, Buddhists have believed that a person who eats these foods will suffer the following ill effects:

His blood and flesh will be rejected by the gods, and the heavens will distance themselves far from him.

His breath is always foul; therefore, all gods and saints will reject him.

If eaten cooked, these foods will arouse lust and cause explosive temper.

If eaten raw, they will increase one’s anger and cause bad body odor that will not please the gods but will stimulate interested “hungry ghosts” who will hover around and kiss one’s lips. Being near ghosts is believed to hinder one’s enlightenment.
Today, however, many vegetarians around the world, including some Buddhists, may eat the Five Pungent Spices without reservation. For Buddhists, this depends on such factors as the person’s degree of adherence to their faith, whether they are practicing Buddhism along with other faiths, and their geographic location.

Health Benefits of the Buddhist Diet

Examples of permitted foods that are staples of the traditional Buddhist diet in many Asian cultures include:

1. Boiled or stir-fried noodles flavored with aromatic spices. Raw or cooked vegetables, seaweed and home-prepared dried food items can also be added.
2. Rice, which can be cooked and flavored in many different ways-e.g., salty, sweet, neutral, sticky, colored or mixed with vegetables.
3. Soy sauce is an essential tasty ingredient that is added to almost every dish, in much the same way as Americans flavor many of their foods with butter and/or salt.
4. Sesame oil is also used heavily in preparing food. Unlike soy sauce, it contains no sodium.
5. Buddhists who are not strict vegetarians will eat fish on an almost daily basis and/or will add it to many of their meals.
6. Herbal tea is a popular and healing drink that originates from various types of tea plants.

For centuries Buddhists have believed that when meat is eaten it accumulates in the body, turning into harmful toxins. Today, modern medicine seems to be proving them right. A number of recent scientific studies have discovered a high incidence of cancer within populations that consume large amounts of meat. Other negative health consequences that have been linked with eating meat include arterial sclerosis, heart disease, high blood pressure, encephalitis, stroke, gallstones and cirrhosis of the liver. All of these conditions are directly related to consuming fat and cholesterol.

According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, meat does in fact contain wastes and toxins, such as uric acid, that have negative effects on blood and body tissues. In contrast, vegetable proteins obtained from nuts, beans and legumes are decidedly healthier and safer. Furthermore, meat, meat products, poultry and seafood all spoil easily within a few hours, but most vegetables stay fresh for several days. Although beans may become rancid relatively quickly, the deterioration is much easier to detect and recognize compared to spoilage in meat, which may not always be detectable by smell or taste.

Cultural Competence Tips for Nurses

When caring for patients who are followers of the Buddhist religion, nurses need to understand that the patient’s main goal is to bring back the body’s yin/yang equilibrium that was disrupted because of illness. It is helpful to first discuss the patient’s illness and care plan in relation to this concept before volunteering a medical or patho-physiological explanation. Because of the supreme importance of nature in Buddhists’ lives, a culturally sensitive medical team will want to prescribe both herbal medicine and pharmaceutical medications, if appropriate. Remember, in these patients’ eyes the goal is not curing but rather maintaining peace of body and mind that will ensure the rebirth process after death.


In terms of dietary assessments, the first step is obviously to find out whether the patient is a vegetarian, how strict or liberal he/she is in following the traditional vegetarian diet and whether there are any other dietary restrictions the patient must observe. The risk of vitamin B12 deficiency among pure vegetarians can be managed by increasing their daily intake of the different types of vegetable proteins.

Buddhist patients staying in a hospital that only serves American-style food may appreciate being provided with a bottle of soy sauce that they can keep in their room to flavor their meals in the way they are accustomed to. The rule of thumb is: When in doubt, ask the patient what he or she would prefer. Be sure to check the labels on different soy sauce products for their sodium content, which can range from 300 grams to as much as 1,080 grams.

Gihan ElGindy, MSN, RN, is an educator and independent consultant on health, nursing, cultural competence, education and business entrepreneurship issues. She is the executive director of the Transcultural Education Center (TEC) in McLean, Virginia. For more information about TEC, visit www.tecenter.org.