Given that it is my business to consider the role of nutrition in people's health and their lives, I often ponder why it is that, living in the midst of the horn of plenty, we cannot come to terms with our eating. Some would say that it is precisely our wealth that is the problem -- that abundance naturally leads us to overconsumption. It seems, on the face of it, to be a reasonable conclusion, and there is more than a grain of truth to it.
However, pre-industrial societies managed to achieve nutritional wealth, without succumbing en masse to the mortalities and co-morbidities of obesity. What made the difference in modern man?
After twenty years of helping people overhaul their eating patterns, and seeing how difficult it is to do what should be the most natural thing on earth -- feed ourselves good food -- it is absolutely clear to me that there are enormously powerful forces which overcome our most basic instincts.
Yes, the clever marketing of fast and processed "food" purveyors is part of this malevolent energy, as is an economic system so warped that eating simply is more expensive than ingesting synthetic biochemical food imitations extracted from petroleum and offal.
But that's not all. Even more fundamental than the issues of modern marketing and factory farming are two factors which have been utterly and totally overlooked by clinical nutrition and medicine.
Food Is Data
The first is the concept of biosemiotics -- that life exists as a transfer of information. The corollary of this concept is that all living entities communicate to each other. When viewed from this perspective, it becomes clear that food is more than nutrients and calories. Food is data; and locked in each bite we take are instructions that tell our bodies what to do.
Those of us who were around in the early days of computing remember the phrase "garbage in, garbage out," which meant that a computer will give correct answers only insofar as you have given it correct information. The same is true of living beings and the food we eat. If we eat garbage, our bodies will respond to our ministrations in perverse and destructive ways.
A full exploration of this concept will take a post of its own, maybe several. What I would like to do in this missive is talk about something considered absolutely taboo in nutritional science: The sacredness of food.
Food is Sacred
I was struck by this concept while reading Patterns in Comparative Religion, by Mircea Eliade. Eliade wrote "One of the major differences separating the people of early cultures form people to-day is precisely the utter incapacity of the latter to live their organic life (particularly as regards sex and nutrition) as a sacrament."
Eliade added that sex and eating "for the modern are simply physiological acts, whereas for primitive man they were sacraments, ceremonies by means of which he communicated with the force which stood for Life itself."
And there lies the core of modern society's struggle with our nutrition. We have taken something sacred -- the very thing which keeps us functional, which gives us life and health and hope -- and stripped it of any emotional meaning.
Our relationship with food is stunted and twisted. The only acceptable food relationships we can admit to are dysfunctional ones. We talk about "comfort food," and "food addictions." Food is the enemy, That Which Makes You Fat, and which can almost never be spoken of in polite company. The only time food can be considered positive is in the hands of the aesthete. Food as a work of art is acceptable, and gourmet cooking shows and books abound; but loving simple foodstuffs to the degree that we would treat it as sacred is, well, sacrilege in this secular world.
Ask yourself this: What would happen if you accorded a bowl of lowly apples (which are abundant right now; as I write this, I'm munching on an apple I harvested from a neglected tree in the back yard of the church across the street) the esteem you now limit to your most precious possessions? What would happen if you transformed the act of eating every meal into a religious or spiritual ritual, or if secular, a mindfulness meditation?
Even more to the point, how would you make the act of eating sacred?
The Sacred Meal
Well, it would have to start with the basics. Cook a simple, meal with few spices and sauces. It does not have to be vegetarian, though like your produce, your meat should be from a local source. Put away the ketchup and most other condiments.
Now, turn off the television and the computer, stop streaming Pandora or Sirius, and welcome your food. Offer a prayer, if it suits your spirituality; if not, speak words of admiration and thanks for the people whose labor brought this food to the table, and perhaps meditate for a few minutes on the richness of soil, the softness of rain, the brightness of sun, and the millions of tiny organisms that made that one bowl of rice possible. Amazing, isn't it? Quite the miracle, either of biology or the divine, whichever suits your taste.
Before digging in, take some time to smell it. Even unadorned rice or vegetables give off scents that are mouth-wateringly pleasant. We are honed by evolution to respond to food sensually.
Only after appreciating your food with your other senses for a minute should you take your first forkful. If eating with others, maintain silence about the table until you have all downed your first mouthfuls, and as you appreciate your own taste buds, watch your fellow diners' reactions as well.
It would be best, as you eat your meal, to enjoy it in essential silence, enjoying the camaraderie of the table as you would of the pew or shul or grove. Take your time. Chew each mouthful 42 times, the wise man says. As you chew each mouthful, remind yourself of how absolutely wonderful it is to have this sustenance. Appreciate it's presence with you and the gift from the Earth that it represents. Note the subtlety of the many flavors that this simple food offers. Like the truly wealthy, it doesn't shout its presence with gaudy baubles.
After the meal, again give thanks, this time to those who accompanied you during this ritual. Clear the table with solemnity, finishing this rite with a joint act of cleansing. Celebrate with a seasonal desert and the post-prandial beverage of choice.
This is how you make your food sacred. Every meal doesn't need to be like this. First, just try it once a week, and then incorporate this approach to other meals as you get comfortable with the process. Add or alter your meal ritual to suit your foods, your surroundings and the seasons. You will find, with time, that a workplace lunch at the desk or the job site can take on aspects of the sacral meal.
And you will see, over time, your relationship with food change. The never-ending hunger will begin to disappear, the cravings for ever-stronger tastes will subside. You won't have to have special, harmful comfort foods, because now all food gives you comfort. You won't have to have an addiction to certain foods because all foods now give you that potentiality. As your relationship with your food becomes healthy, you instinctively begin to make better food choices. And you become healthier as well.
As much as modern foodstuffs are being stripped of nutritional value, our ways of eating are stripping food of its ability to feed our souls as well as our bodies. Returning the sacred to the act of eating will recreate a healthy relationship, a health which will take bloom in our own bodies as well.