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The Enlightened Diet

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Even though we count calories, watch our weight, and figure fat grams, Americans are the fattest people in the world. Perhaps we've forgotten that food is more than an amalgam of nutrients. Along with healing us physically, it enhances emotions, satisfies the soul, and connects us to others and to the mystery of life.

This article appeared in the Winter 2003 issue of Spirituality & Health.

When I lecture about optimal eating, the question I'm asked most frequently is about the diet du jour. Many want to know what's best: Is it the zone? Eat right for your type? What do I think about Ornish (high carbohydrate/low fat) vs. Atkins (high protein/high fat)? Which do I choose? 

The simple answer is that I don't choose. Rather, I believe we're asking the wrong question, so we're getting the wrong answer -- and ongoing weight gain. Let me explain.

Given that American children, teens, and adults are more overweight than ever before (80 percent of adults over 25 are either obese or overweight, up from 58 percent in 1983), it's natural that when we think about nutrition, we focus on weight and fat, both in food and our bodies. We go on diets, analyze and obsess about food, turn to it as an enemy or friend, eat too much, eat too little, worry about it, avoid it, crave it, revere it, or believe that a particular nutrient will magically melt the pounds. Yet despite all of our conscientious attention to food and the incredible advances we've made in nutritional science, not only are our waistlines continuing to increase, so, too, are most food-linked ailments. From high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes, to cancer, osteoarthritis, and depression, excess pounds are an ever-rising threat to our health and well-being. So we're left wondering, what's gone wrong?

I've been pondering this question since graduate school in the eighties when I worked as the nutrition specialist with pioneering physician Dean Ornish, M.D., and colleagues, who demonstrated that lifestyle changes--stress management (yoga and meditation), a no-fat-added plant-based diet, group support, and exercise--may reduce risk factors linked to heart disease, such as high cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, and being overweight.

However, even with such incredible insights about diet, lifestyle, and health, as our waistlines and other food-related ailments continued to increase, I began to realize that the biological and technical examination of nutrients -- measuring and analyzing calories, fats, carbohydrates, protein, vitamins, and minerals -- are just one part of the food and nutrition story; that food is a four-part gift that nourishes not only physical health, but also our spiritual, emotional, and social well-being.

The Missing Ingredient

Sometimes you have to go backward before you can move forward. I got my first clue about missing "nutrients" in our meals in New Delhi, India, where I had been invited to present a workshop at the First International Conference on Lifestyle and Health. One of the presenters was K. I. Chopra, father and mentor of Deepak Chopra. After his lecture, I interviewed Dr. Chopra for a magazine article I was planning to write about yoga and diet. What he said was to change my view of food forever: "Prana is the vital life force of the universe, the cosmic force...and it goes into you, into me, with food. When you cook with love, you transfer the love into the food and it is metabolized....In former days (based on the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita), the tradition was for the mother to cook the food with love and then feed it to the children; only then would she eat." 

Was it really possible to infuse food with loving consciousness? Fascinated by the possibility, I began a search through the major world religions (such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism) and cultural traditions (such as yogic nutrition, the Japanese Way of Tea, Native American food beliefs, and African-American soul food) for their teachings about food.

I learned that our spiritual ancestors related to food as more than just sustenance for the body. For instance, Judaism's dietary laws are designed to honor the sanctity of life that is in both animal- and plant-based food; Christians honor the divine through the bread and wine (or grape juice) of Holy Communion; African-Americans celebrate food, life, and friendship by spicing soul food with love; yogis eat, in part, to commune with food's life-giving qualities; Muslims honor food for its divine essence; Buddhists pursue enlightenment by bringing a meditative awareness to food; the Chinese use food to communicate with ancient ancestors and gods; and the Japanese turn to tea ceremonies to renew the spirit.

Integrative Nutrition

Not only do virtually all religions and cultural traditions encourage cooking with love, they also seem to integrate intuitively and instinctively what modern researchers are beginning to conjecture: that food empowers us to heal multidimensionally. In other words, we may use our incredible human consciousness and food in four ways: to prevent or reverse physical ailments (biological nutrition); experience the food-mood connection (psychological nutrition); reunited with the spiritual meaning of food (spiritual nutrition); and return to our "social nutrition" heritage (social nutrition). Recognizing all four facets of food allows us to pay attention to the connections between food and body, food and mind, food and soul, and food and social well-being. When we do, we gain a new focus for optimal dietary self-care, which I describe as integrative nutrition.

The practice of integrative nutrition is both new and old. It is based on three worldviews about food and diet: Western nutritional science, which focuses on nutrients and physical health; Eastern healing systems that include nutrition, such as traditional Chinese medicine, Ayurveda, and Tibetan medicine; and timeless lifestyle wisdom gleaned from world religions and cultural traditions. Ultimately, integrative nutrition is not only about what to eat but also about how to eat for better health. It is the essence of the enlightened diet.

Six Elements of Enlightened Eating

To be enlightened, according to the dictionary, is to be "freed from ignorance and misinformation." To enlighten is to illuminate and furnish with spiritual insight. Enlightened eating means turning to science to free ourselves from dietary misinformation and to spiritual tradition to infuse meals with meaning and love. To get an idea of what such a comprehensive approach means, here are the six nutritional truths of the enlightened diet that have nourished humankind for millennia, with examples of state-of-the-art science that are beginning to verify food's multidimensional power to heal.

1. Unite with others through food.

Food, eating, and dining have always been intimately interwoven with our relationships. In tribes and clans and through rituals and celebrations, connecting with others through food is our social legacy, a refuge where memories reside, a nourishing world wherein traditions endure.

One of the first studies to demonstrate the link between a socially supportive dining environment and health and well-being was published in the June 16, 1951, issue of the medical journal The Lancet. The study was conducted by British nutritionist Elsie M. Widdowson just after World War II. When she arrived at two orphanages in Germany, she decided to take a year to study the effects of servings of food on the children's weight and height gain. When she assessed the results, she learned that some children thrived -- regardless of whether they received equal or additional food. The enigma was solved when Widdowson realized that a strict caretaker chose mealtime to administer public rebukes and to ridicule certain children. Those who were disciplined during mealtime gained the least weight and stature -- regardless of their caloric intake. The implication: Dining in a pleasant, supportive atmosphere may improve physical and emotional well-being.

2. Be aware of feelings before, during, and after eating.

By using their own minds/bodies as a laboratory thousands of years ago, ancient yogis (called rishis) created a food philosophy (anna yoga) with feelings at its core. In essence, they learned that particular foods had sattvic, calming qualities that were believed to enhance deep meditation and encourage mind-body equilibrium.

In the 1970s, Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher Judith Wurtman, Ph.D., confirmed in her high-tech laboratory what ancient rishis had discovered centuries before: Carbohydrate-dense, plant-based foods (fruits, vegetables, grains, etc.) do indeed calm and relax the mind-body. What is the mechanism? When you consume carbohydrate-dense foods (such as potatoes and rice), the hormone insulin is released in the pancreas. In turn, amino acids from the bloodstream are absorbed into the body -- all except one: tryptophan. Instead, it floods the brain, where it is converted into soothing serotonin, a naturally occurring hormone that promotes a feeling of calm and relaxation, which makes meditating easier.

3. Bring moment-to-moment nonjudgmental awareness to each aspect of the meal.

"Contemplating our food for a few seconds before eating, and eating in mindfulness, can bring us much happiness," writes Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh in Peace Is Every Step. Indeed, it may also make a difference to health and well-being.

When Meyer Friedman, M.D. -- the researcher who gave us the term "type A personality" -- and colleagues fed a super-high-fat snack to both time-urgent, angry, hostile type As and more mindful, mellow typ Bs, and then magnified photographs of the tiny vessels in the whites of the participants' eyes, they could actually see the capillaries of type As becoming clogged, a phenomenon that Dr. Friedman called "sludging." The type Bs' capillaries remained relatively clear. Such results suggest that if you happen to consume high-fat foods but you do so in a calm, relaxed, present frame of mind, you're less likely to clog your vessels, and your risk of heart disease may be lower.

4. Be grateful for food and its origins -- from the heart. 

To have such an attitude of gratitude, to be truly grateful for the life that both plant- and animal-based food gave so that you may thrive, may enhance both your health and your appetite.

Groundbreaking research by my husband, Larry Scherwitz, Ph.D., published in Psychosomatic Medicine, suggests a link between excessive self-involvement (measured by the frequent use of pronouns I, me, my, and mine) and increased threat of heart disease. The antidote: "Each time you eat, focus on the food and meal instead of on yourself," says Scherwitz. "It may make you less prone to heart disease."

5. United with the divine by flavoring food with love.

Whether it's Communion or soul food, virtually every religious and culture tradition has a core belief that food can be transformed by love.

The message that food could be imbued with spirit was brought home to me by Leonard Laskow, M.D., author of Healing with Love. Dr. Laskow's method of infusing liquids and food with loving energy consisted of four steps, which he describes as intentionality, heart focus, letting in the light, and food infusion. After the "infusion," people can smell and taste a difference in the "loved" versus "unloved" nourishment. 

Hundreds of studies on the exchange of consciousness between people and plants and food have been published, such as in the classic The Secret Life of Plants by Peter Tompkins and Christopher bird. Other research by Bernard Grad suggests that plants and food somehow sense and respond to verbal and nonverbal communication from humans. Indeed, Grad has been able to demonstrate that plants fed a "cared-for" solution of water thrived. His conclusion: "If a person's mood could influence a...solution...it seemed natural to assume that a cook's...mood could influence the quality of food prepared for a meal."

6. Eat fresh whole food in its natural state as often as possible.

Virtually every world religion and cultural tradition encourages eating fresh whole foods. For instance, when I interviewed Hamid Algar, Ph.D., professor of Islamic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, he said: "Fast food is the spiritual antithesis [of the dietary tenets] of the Qur'an." This means that by "treating food as an industrial artifact that is consumed without any devotional context" is to negate that food is a divine gift. 

Many of us are part of a vast, uncontrolled experiment in "industrial" eating. The data is clear that consuming lots of processed, high-fat foods that have been depleted of many beneficial nutrients contributes to obesity and related ailments.

An Experiment in True Nourishment

The six elements of the enlightened diet are a template not only for what to eat and how to eat but also how to live: consciously, filled with a sense of wonder inherent in the alchemical union between human beings and food. This integration of nutritional science and spirit is an ongoing process, a real-world experiment that is resplendent with possibilities in how to nourish every aspect of our being each time we eat.

There's a lot to learn. And people need a lot of support to integrate the elements of the enlightened diet into their lives. 

Self-Test: Are You Getting Your Spiritual "Nutrients"?

For each question, write the number that best represents the degree to which you bring mindfulness, appreciation, and loving regard to food.

Scale: Never (0) Rarely (+1) Sometimes (+2) Usually (+3) Almost Always (+4) Always (+5)

1. I plan an prepare meals:

with care____

with appreciation____

2. I express gratitude for food through prayer, blessings, heartfelt thankfulness___

3. Before and during eating, I focus on a food's:

color___

aroma___

portion size___

flavor(s)___

4. I eat with my sense by: 

appreciating the presentation___

tasting textures___

savoring scents___

5. I focus solely on food and the experience of dining.___

6. I appreciate the web of humanity (farmers, grocers, cooks) surrounding food.___

7. I consider the elements of nature that create food.___

8. I eat with loving regard for food.___

9. I honor the mystery of life in food.___

10. After eating, I:

savor the moment___

reflect on the meal___

Subtotal +_____

Scale: Never (0) Rarely (-1) Sometimes (-2) Usually (-3) Almost Always (-4) Always (-5)

11. I concentrate on, or think about, work, chores, etc., while eating___

12. I judge others by what they eat.___

13. I eat quickly.___

14. After eating, I get up and get going.___

15. After eating, I wash the dishes grudgingly.___

Subtotal -_____

Combine your + and _ scores for your

Total Spiritual Nutrition Score: + or - _____

What the scoring system says about your score:

+63 and over.....Excellent

+43 to +62.....Good

+24 to +42.....Satisfactory

+23 and below.....Needs improvement

This test is excerpted from The Healing Secrets of Food: A Practical Guide for Nourishing Body, Mind, and Soul by Deborah Kesten, published by New World Library. Used by permission.

Strategies for Enlightened Eating

Socializing. If you're dining alone, conjure up a favorite food memory that you enjoyed with others, such as a family picnic or romantic dinner. At the office, ask a coworker to join you for lunch, or have a weekly potluck with special friends.

Feelings. Before eating, ask yourself if you feel hungry, then "check in" again while eating to determine whether you feel full. If you're anxious, calm down with carbohydrates such as a potato, or perk up with nonfat dairy, such as yogurt.

Mindfulness. Commit to being in the present moment when you eat, shop, or prepare food, and when cleaning up. Start with small steps by focusing on the appearance (such as color), aroma, and texture of the food.

Appreciation. Foster an attitude of gratitude by saying a blessing before eating. If you're short on time, try the Native American Seneca greeting, "Thank you for being."

Connection/Love. Regardless of the setting, remain mindful of the gift of food. Whether cooking, dining at a favorite restaurant, or selecting produce, flavor food with love by holding love in your heart and loving intention in your mind.

Optimal Foods. The key concept to choosing optimal foods is to consume mostly plant-based foods (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes), with smaller servings of nuts and seeds. If you eat animal-based foods, choose low- or nonfat dairy, and lean fish, poultry, and meat.


Deborah Kesten, M.P.H., is the award-winning author of Feeding the Body, Nourishing the Soul (Conari Press) and The Healing Secrets of Food (New World Library). A pioneer in the field of integrative nutrition, she has worked as the nutrition specialist with Dean Ornish, M.D., on his first clinical trial for reversing heart disease. Kesten has presented workshops and participated in research internationally and was honored as "a healer for the new millennium" by Healthy Living magazine.


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