The spry, slender 73-year-old man sprints up to the stage, pumps the air with his fist, and shouts out a robust, "Hallelujah!"
The Rev. George Malkmus surveys the crowd of nearly 400 packed into a former college auditorium and finds that people have come from all over the country -- and even from Nigeria -- to hear him preach the Gospel. But it's not his approach to scripture that draws this crowd. It's his diet: "the Hallelujah Diet."
Malkmus, a Gospel minister who takes the Bible literally, said that -- long before South Beach or Jenny Craig -- God laid out his own diet plan in the book of Genesis.
Malkmus pounds the pulpit: "What did God tell man in Genesis 1:29? That your food shall be all of those plants that are in that garden. You will not find anything of animal origin in the garden diet. You will not find Twinkies either!"
The garden he refers to, of course, is the Garden of Eden. Indeed, the Hallelujah Diet answers the question: "What would Adam and Eve eat?"
Raw Menu Too 'Risky'?
The program consists almost entirely of raw fruits and vegetables, seeds and nuts. Under the Hallelujah plan, only 15 percent of the vegetables are supposed to be cooked.
Malkmus said he has never wavered from the strict vegan diet since he took it up at age 42 after being told he had colon cancer: "Within a year, my baseball size tumor had totally disappeared as had all of the other physical problems I was experiencing." Malkmus acknowledges that he never had a biopsy, but insists, "I had a tumor that was self-evident. I was bleeding from the rectum."
At his seminar, Malkmus is clearly preaching to the choir. Some of his disciples credit the Hallelujah Diet with clearing up a host of health problems, including acid reflux, arthritis, body odor, diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome and cancer.
Such anecdotal claims are difficult to verify, of course, and Malkmus himself is careful not to promise miracles. "I don't believe the Hallelujah Diet can cure anybody of anything."
Nonetheless, Malkmus does not attempt to dissuade his followers if they believe the diet helps rid them of assorted ailments, including serious diseases.
Even nutritionists who endorse eating more fruits and vegetables are wary of the Hallelujah Diet. A recent study at the University of California at San Diego found that breast cancer patients who ate extra heaping portions of fruits and vegetables did not enjoy better outcomes than others.
Dr. Cheryl Rock, who co-authored the study, finds the Hallelujah Diet too extreme, difficult to maintain and lacking in protein. "It would be very risky in terms of meeting all our nutritional needs."
To answer such criticisms, including the lack of protein, Malkmus proudly displays his own biceps and insists that he is still building muscle at age 73.
The founder of the Hallelujah Diet is just as feisty in defending its biblical foundation. For example, later in Genesis 9:3, the Bible reads, "Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you." Asked if that is God's endorsement of eating meat, Malkmus insists that section of Genesis refers only to the time of the great flood, when those aboard Noah's ark had to eat animal flesh.
In other words, Malkmus believes, God gave man a onetime pass to stray from the vegan diet of the Garden of Eden. In fact, Malkmus preaches, according to Genesis, that man lived, on average, for more than 900 years.
For all its critics, the Hallelujah Diet appears to have struck a chord among many diet-conscious Christians. Malkmus has expanded his family-run operation to a former college campus in Shelby, N.C.
Telephone operators field hundreds of calls each day, selling such Hallelujah Diet products as barley juice and vitamin supplements. Malkmus and his son, Paul, who runs the business operation, have ambitious plans for building Hallelujah Acres, a residential and commercial complex complete with a 72-room hotel, condominiums and homes.
That is the ultimate dream of Malkmus: a Christian community of likeminded disciples eating just like Adam and Eve.