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Faithful embrace Bible-based diet as formula for health, healing

A mostly raw, vegetarian diet — derived from scripture — is on the menu at Genesis Healing Center


Staff Writer

The Rev. Brenda Lee Reed won't preach to you about heaven, hell, sin or salvation, but she has a lot to say about the foods we eat and the unhealthy lifestyle many Americans lead.

"My philosophy is really simple and basic," she says. "Genesis 1:29. What God gave us in the beginning: Fruit, vegetables, nuts and grains. He created our bodies to heal and to be healthy."

Many practices in alternative medicine have long been associated with elements of Eastern spirituality, but Reed is part of a small and steadily growing group of practitioners that teaches from a Biblical perspective.

People seeking a faith-based, non-medical approach are embracing the trend, but skeptics worry people will substitute potentially lifesaving treatment with unproven therapies — some of which could be harmful.

Reed runs the Genesis Healing Center, a health-focused bed and breakfast cradled in the hills northeast of Murfreesboro. In the center's 10-bedroom, 1940s home, Reed hosts support groups, culinary classes and Bible studies that encourage adopting a meat-free diet that's 85% raw vegetables, 15% cooked.

Reed also offers one-on-one health counseling, colonics and a hot oil detox bath. For $150 a night, guests can stay in one of the center's private rooms.

Reed is a former full-time mom who became interested in alternative medicine in 1999, when her father was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. Just one session of radiation therapy left him physically drained and barely able to walk, so she was desperate to find an alternative.

Reed took her father to the Oasis of Hope Hospital in Tijuana, Mexico. The hospital is known for its use of enzymes and other treatments that are not approved in the United States.

The hospital put him on a treatment program based on the Hallelujah Diet, which consists primarily of raw plant foods and juices. Reed credits the treatment with helping her father gain six pounds and giving him the energy to walk three miles a day. He returned to Nashville for conventional treatment and succumbed to his illness, but Reed became convinced of the benefits of a raw food diet.

She traveled to Shelby, N.C., to learn more about the Hallelujah Diet and its founder, the Rev. George Malkmus.

Malkmus says he was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1976 but was cured after a year of eating a raw foods diet. He founded Hallelujah Acres in 1992 as a restaurant and health foods store in the small town of Rogersville, Tenn., near the Virginia border.

Seeking to expand his reach, Malkmus closed his store in 1994 and began hosting seminars and appearing on radio and in television programs such as The 700 Club.

In addition to its headquarters in North Carolina, Hallelujah Acres now operates a center in Canada and a clinic is Mexico. It sells nutritional supplements, exercise videos and even products such as kitchen and bath cleaner.

Reed took a two-week course at Hallelujah Acres to become a health minister and last year opened the Genesis Healing Center.

Hallelujah Acres spokesperson Linda Hills says there are 6,000 such health ministers worldwide, and that she expects more growth with next month's release of Malkmus' third book, The Hallelujah Diet.

Georgia Buckner of Murfreesboro heard about the diet through a friend in 2001, and credits it with ending her chronic constipation and reducing her allergies, asthma and rosacea. She also says the diet reversed blockages that had formed in the arteries leading to her kidneys and improved her vision to the point that she was able to cancel a scheduled cataract surgery.

The 69-year-old admits that it's not easy to avoid dairy, sugar, white flour, caffeine and meat, but says the benefits are well worth it.

"It becomes less difficult to follow the diet once you see the improvements," she says. "And you start to see them right away."

But amid the enthusiasm of people such as Buckner, doctors and even clergy are critical of Malkmus' Bible-based raw foods approach.

"I think many of the things that they advocate from the standpoint of exercising, eating more fiber, eating less processed foods, resolving stress — these are things that have been advocated by the traditional medical establishment for a long time," says Dr. Barbara Murphy, who directs the pain and symptom management program at the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center. "I think the big problem is that Hallelujah Acres takes it beyond what the known data supports into a realm where the claims are questionable if not downright incorrect."

While many people see large doses of vitamins as helpful or, at the worst, not harmful, Murphy says that's not always the case. Large doses of beta carotene supplements, for example, actually increase the risk of lung cancer.

Hallelujah Acres spokesperson Linda Hill says the group does not make any claims that the diet will cure disease, but says that diet alone helped Malkmus overcome his cancer and points to testimonials on the group's Web site that highlight other success stories.

"We have testimonials on there of people that have had cancer, fibromyalgia, type II diabetes and they've gone on the diet and they've had wonderful results," Hill says. "Now we don't make claims that will happen to everybody, but we do have hundreds and hundreds of people we've had that happen to by changing their diet."

Doctors are quick to point out that anecdotes posted on a Web site are not scientific data, and some question the validity of Malkmus' story. Dr. Stephen Barrett is a retired Pennsylvania psychiatrist who operates www.quackwatch.org, a non-profit site that seeks to combat health myths and frauds.

Citing a newspaper story in which Malkmus was quoted, Barrett points out that Malkmus may have never had a tumor. In the article, Malkmus says he relied on a chiropractor and a nutritionist for his diagnosis.

Barrett also points out that people on the diet are likely to be deficient in vitamin B-12 and other nutrients, which is why the diet advocates the use of supplements.

Reed says she doesn't recommend that people replace traditional medicine with raw foods. Rather, she wants to complement the medical care that people receive and to reduce the likelihood that people need medical care.

Dietary restrictions aren't uncommon in various faiths. Many Muslims observe dietary protocols known as halal and many Jewish people observe kosher laws. Seventh Day Adventists encourage good health and many are vegetarians.

The Rev. Edward Lee Thompson, pastor of Lee Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, gave up meat for Lent about 25 years ago and hasn't had any since. "I just thought being a vegetarian was healthier," he says. "It's not something that's a part of my faith."

Jerry Highfill, associate pastor of evangelism and missions at Two Rivers Baptist Church in Nashville, says using Genesis 1:29 to promote a raw foods diet ignores numerous references to meat eating in the Bible, such as eating lamb at Passover and Jesus feeding large groups fish and bread.

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