We like to think that we're in control of what we eat. But for those in a cult, diet is often dictated by the group's leader who has the power to influence and brainwash his or her followers. One of the most notorious examples of this was when Jim Jones ordered his followers to drink cyanide-tainted Flavor Aid in 1978.
The diets of different cults are as varied as the beliefs and principles of the cults themselves, and often reflect the personality and ideals of the leader. The California-based cult Synanon, for example, was initially founded as a residential recovery center for alcoholics by Charles "Chuck" Dederich in 1958. In the 1970s, however, it evolved to be a place for non-addicts and addicts alike. Megan Heath, who grew up in the cult and was there from 1970 to 1978, told me that Dederich and the community were very health- and fitness- oriented. "They had these big purging exercises to weed out those who weren't fully committed," she says.
The group banned cigarettes and sugar, and made members shave their heads. All of Synanon's food was donated by various companies, which meant that they subsisted on (among other foods) Grapenuts, Uncle Sam's cereal, and a required two tablespoons of bran per day. Overall, Heath describes the food of Synanon as "disgusting." Despite the fact that the cult owned dairy cows and a facility to make milk products—the Synanon commune ranch in Marshall, CA is now home to Straus Family Creamery—they drank powdered milk called "Synanmilk" because it was cheap. When Heath's family eventually left the cult, her dad treated her to ice cream.
Rev. Sun Myung Moon would point out women in lectures and say, 'No one wants to marry a fat girl.'
Members of the Unification Church, started by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon in the 1950s, endured even worse treatment. Teddy Hose, who grew up in the cult in the 1980s and '90s, explained that they would eat a lot of Korean food at church events, but that there was also a "suffer-for-God mentality, so some people would go on a fast for a week." Hose describes Moon as a "degrading, power-hungry guy...[who] would sometimes point out women in lectures and say, 'No one wants to marry a fat girl.'" As a result, people in the church were very health-conscious and critical of the American diet. (Interestingly, the church's reach extended to the greater food world, too: It owns True World Foods, the main supplier of sushi to restaurants in the US.)
Not every cult was as draconian, though. The Source was the "Glenda the Good Cult of Cults," according to former member Isis Aquarian. The Source's leader Jim Baker (later known as Father Yod) was a board-certified nutritionist and helped to pioneer some of today's crunchier eating trends. Aquarian, who was one of his 14 wives, asserts that he was "a food guru and a legend in his time."
Baker and others in The Source Family started The Source restaurant in Los Angeles in the 1970s, known for serving vegetarian and locally sourced food. The restaurant was highly successful and attracted a celebrity clientele, and even made a cameo in the film Annie Hall. "Baker was highly respected by food people in the industry and making influential in making food healthier," says Jodi Wille, director of the documentary The Source Family.
For one diet, The Source Family ate only eggplant, filbert nuts, tomatoes, and alfalfa sprouts for 30 days.
Damian Paul, who was the third son of The Source Family and now owns The Source Natural Foods in Hawaii, says Baker was into the idea of discipline. He based his philosophy on the teachings of his spiritual guru Yogi Bhajan, and would put members on various vegetarian diets. For one diet, they ate only eight different ingredients—including eggplant, filbert nuts, tomatoes, and alfalfa sprouts—for 30 days. "To this day I can't eat filberts," he says, "and the smell of wheatgrass nauseates me."
As benign as The Source diet was, the restriction of certain foods is all about control. Those restrictions can be highly specific, as Elizabeth Clare Prophet of the Church Universal and Triumphant, who claimed to channel messages from Jesus and the Buddha, instructed her flock. "Prophet gave her followers direct orders about what they should eat, how they should eat, and even where they should sit while eating," writes researcher Jessie Meikle in her study "Imposed Anorexia: A Model of Dietary Restriction in Four Ideological Groups." She notes that members maintained a low-calorie diet of very bland foods, but Prophet herself kept a walk-in refrigerator full of exotic fruit, ice cream, and seafood.
One of the most extreme forms of dietary restriction is the near-mythic Breatharianism, whose members believe that humans are capable of living entirely without food. And then there's the Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, whose leader Rama Behera imposed week-long restrictions, and then ended them by enforcing binges of East Indian meals. Meikle writes, "[Many] group members vomited in reaction to consuming large quantities of food in a short time, after which Behera reputedly forced them to eat their own vomit."
Jim Jones made overweight members 'wire their mouths closed so they could only have milkshakes.'
While not as totally ascetic as Breatharianism, Jim Jones' dietary orders to his followers of the Peoples Temple could swing from moderate to severe. On the relatively less-extreme end, Jones advocated for soybeans because they were considered a "nuclear war/atomic bomb preventative...so you could be in a nuclear zone and be protected because you ate soybeans," according to Laura Kohl, a former member and Jonestown survivor. When the cult relocated from the US to Guyana, the menu was heavy on cereal and rice. "Cheap rice, rice with gravy with little pieces of meat in it. We rarely had any kind of real meat at dinner," Kohl says. "My favorite lunch in Guyana was to have platanos—fried platanos sandwiches on bread with cheese."
Before the cult relocated, though, Jones made overweight members "wire their mouths closed so they could only have milkshakes," says Kohl. "[He] wanted everyone to be obsessed with him and not with anything else, including food," she says. "So it was kind of a minimalist [diet]."
Jones went to lengths to conceal this from the public. Sherwin Harris, who had family in the cult and is a co-founder of the Concerned Relatives group, recalls going to a meal at the Jonetown Lamaha Gardens headquarters in Georgetown: "It was an ordinary chicken dinner. However, during this meal...I observed a line of residents of the house at the back kitchen door holding their bowls awaiting a serving of cereal of some kind, which was to be their lunch. Apparently chicken dinners were not for the rank and file, and I was being given a show, as was their MO."
Of course, it was ultimately a drink that killed over 900 people in the Jonestown massacre, where people both voluntarily and involuntarily ingested cyanide and inadvertently gave birth to the factually faulty phrase "drink the Kool-Aid."
And a deadly cult food legacy is sure to outlast the more healthful ones, like that of The Source. During her time with the group, Isis Aquarian's favorite meal was The Source Special. "[It was] an open-faced sandwich, a grated beet and grated carrot salad on sprouts, with a whole lot of garlic and raisins, of all things," she recalls. "It was the greatest little salad ever, with The Source dressing. The Source dressing was another thing that was really, really phenomenal...people who have had it, to this day, still talk about the Source dressing."