Monday, January 19, 2015

Spirituality, Food Ideologies, and Diets

vegetarian, vegan, spiritual food, spiritual awakening eating
There's a lot of confusion and misconceptions around spiritual diets/ways of eating, and with the eating habits of Western Culture having becomes so warped, people just don't even know what they should eat anymore. Add on top of that, we have some of the weirdest situations and choices to make in the history of humanity with issues around pesticides on foods, growth hormones in animals, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), animal cruelty, sourcing of the food (Is it local or not?) and more. This has turned a trip to the supermarket--one of the biggest gifts human beings have ever received--into a kind of mental nightmare. What do you choose? What really is healthy? What isn't healthy? And how does a sense of spirituality make sense of this?

It gets worse. Because you have extremists on either side expounding different positions (corporations and our new defenders of the "right way to eat"), the whole topic of what to eat has been thoroughly muddled by misinformation, personal and corporate agendas, and more.

But don't worry. While I'm not here to tell you what the right way to eat is, I am here to tell you that you are in very close contact with someone who already knows--your body. So let me talk a little bit about how to listen to your body and how to analyze the different food ideologies (eating things based on an idea of what is right or wrong rather than what feels good in your body) and diets so that you can make more conscious food decisions.

In the Beginning, We Ate to Survive

In the beginning, food was all about survival. Whatever was on hand nearby was what you ate. If you could grow it, you could eat it. If it didn't grow, you didn't eat it. Let's not rush past this point either. Because part of the interesting aspects of some food ideologies is that they have regional biases--meaning that they tell you what you should be eating based on the region where the ideology was born from. If a food ideology had grown up out of the arctic rim, then the appropriate way to eat and thrive would involve eating a whole lot of whale and seal meat. That's what was local and available. If that had gotten popular, that would be central basis for telling people how to eat right if you were an Arctictarian.

Clearly it didn't, but it illustrates a point. Regional influences have profound influences on any ideologies, philosophies, spiritual traditions, laws, and religions. You should never underestimate the demands and opportunities presented by a location (desert, tropics, tundra, plains, swamps, forests, mountains, valleys, etc.) because it places upon us certain requirement and choices that directly influences how we think and attempt to survive.

But back to the issue of eating to survive.

Originally, food was pretty much all local. You grew what you could. Maybe you had a few farm animals, and maybe you did a little hunting for whatever animals were nearby. You most likely knew anybody you bought meat, dairy, vegetables, nuts, fruits, and other stuff from. There really wasn't much of a disconnect between you and your food,

Disconnected from Our Food

As things have progressed, technology has helped us out a lot. It's a wonderful thing to not be facing the brink of starvation in most of the Western world (although "according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), 15.8 million children under 18 in the United States live in households where they are unable to consistently access enough nutritious food necessary for a healthy life.") While this issue isn't gone, clearly we have access to a plethora of food choices, aka the local supermarket. We can get things that we never could have eaten several centuries ago. Bananas and mangoes aren't exactly indigenous to most of the U.S. and other parts of the Northern Hemisphere.

Along the way, we've gotten more and more disconnected from our food. We really don't know where it comes from. We don't know how it is processed or transported. That disconnect has gotten worse as people don't understand what is important in life and society, and we've gotten further invested a lot of unhealthy cycles and patterns (such as the race to get lots of money--but for what?). We don't eat mindfully. We shovel down food just to get to the next thing, and while not everyone does this, enough people do it that we've seen trends like fast food, foods with high sugar content, caffeinated drinks, and other such things explode in popularity. We don't know what's in most of these things and a ton of other processed foods, and because people are increasingly unhappy, we just want to feel good and don't care about any of that so long as they make us feel good.

True Good Feelings

When someone is too unhealthy, they don't know what it means to truly feel good. This is where we have to start working. This is where initially some food ideologies and diets can be helpful to start resetting your internal system and tuning into your body's wisdom. Most of what people think they like to eat is simply what they are accustomed to eating. With habitual patterns, people learn how to like a lot of things that they don't necessarily like--alcohol is always a great example of this. People often call it an acquired taste. You'd be far better off not acquiring a taste for it. It serves no good biological purpose as far as I know, and people generally make jokes about going to kill a few brain cells when they go out to drink. How is that a good thing?

Getting back to true good feelings tends to bring up a whole lot of unpleasant feelings, which were being avoided in the first place. If you are grossly obese or generally overweight, you need to lose weight. A moderate diet (done in consultation with a nutritionist, doctor, or someone with experience and knowledge about this) is necessary to get started healing. And losing weight is healing because the body is being stressed in multiple ways when you are overweight. If you are underweight, you'll need to change your diet as well. An underweight body is also being put under a certain level of strain because it doesn't have all the food resources it needs to maintain itself. Things start to breakdown in unhealthy ways.

Furthermore, some people are simply malnourished. You may be an appropriate weight, but you may be lacking in iron in your diet or Vitamin A or Vitamin B12 or something else. Any way that we are not eating in alignment with our body's true needs puts us into a space of dis-ease where we can more easily become sick or generally don't feel as good and clear about ourselves as we should.

Diets and Fasting: Short-Term Solutions

Getting back to our body intelligence can be a tough road for a lot of people. As I've mentioned elsewhere on this spiritual awakening blog, the body isn't separate from the mind, emotions, and spirit. It's all intertwined. So as you heal the body and your diet, a lot of mental ideas will have be reviewed. Different emotions will come up and need to be met with kindness and compassion. A lot of work will go on to right the ship and get you back into alignment with your body's awareness--and it is very aware.

On the level of the body, a moderate diet (not restrictive or attempting to achieve weight goals to look a certain way) is important to gently and gradually helping the body come back to health. A fast that you research and have gotten good information about is also helpful for breaking your current cycle of eating habits. It's a great way to practice willpower--which is a big issue for a lot of people--and to reinvigorate your sense of what you are eating and how it makes you feel when you come off the fast. Coming off the fast can be challenging too, so be very gentle and mindful about that (but if you've done your research, you should have some good pointers on how to do so).

The important part is that you are detoxing enough to feel healthy and to have some inkling of what food makes you feel healthy. When we are accustomed to certain types of food, we think we need to have them. All kinds of cravings are created that fuel this cycle of unhealthy eating. Sugary foods and processed foods tend to have this nasty habit of being habit developing. In some regards, quitting some foods will be like quitting an addiction, and the hidden agendas hiding underneath consuming a food (like eating sugar to make yourself feel good when you emotionally feel bad) will emerge.

The "Right Way" to Eat: Vegetarianism and Veganism

On the spiritual path, it seems that many people have staked out vegetarianism or veganism as the "right way" to eat and be a spiritual person. More than a few people who have chosen to eat this way will tell you why you have to eat that way too. To be sure, these are healthy options for most people (but not necessarily all), and for some of you, eating a vegetarian diet can be a helpful and healthy way to losing weight and achieve your optimum body shape (whatever shape that is for you personally). And if you haven't ever eaten a different way than your family programming taught you, (and assuming that your dietary programming wasn't vegetarian) learning how to eat a vegetarian diet can be very illuminating. I should add that it is perfectly healthy. You can get all the nutrients you need without eating animal meat. From my experiences, meat isn't necessary. But it doesn't mean that eating meat is bad either.

Rather, I want to impress upon you that the way you grew up eating may not be what is integrity with your body. I also want to impress upon you that "swallowing" someone else's ideas about how you should eat (a food ideology like vegetarianism) isn't a mindful way to come into integrity with your body. And I know a lot of people are expounding upon the benefits of vegetarianism and veganism. It's not all wrong. It's not all right either, and there are couple of points and assumptions that often get hidden in this debate of the "right way" or "spiritual way" of eating that you should be mindful of. One of the big concerns is that killing animals to eat is wrong.

The idea that killing animals is wrong tends to hide a number of assumptions, and it immediately vilifies billions of people who have eaten meat over the course of human history. There are also other hidden biases and considerations at play on a larger-scale. What assumptions and considerations are at work? Here's a few:

  1. Fear of death. Human beings are afraid of dying, and animals are easily the most personifiable beings sharing this planet with us. Admitting to the fact that animals will die whether we eat them or not forces someone to look at their own mortality. Some people would rather avoid this truth and feel that not eating animals will keep them morally safe while leaving the fear of death issue unaddressed and hidden in their ideologies.
  2. Judgments about what it's okay to kill and what's not okay to kill. Some religions take the stance that we should do no harm. This is a great idea, but practically speaking, we immediately find ourselves having to judge everything and place it on a continuum. Right now, we're all okay with harming and killing bacteria. Your body is doing it right now. If it didn't, you'd be very sick or dead. We are okay with killing plants, and we re-shape the environment in all kinds of ways as human beings. Right or wrong, this happens if you want to build a house for yourself. So we are already engaged in the life-or-death cycles whether we eat meat or not. Whether you want to say that killing a chicken is worse than killing carrot plant is part of your self-discovery.
  3. Concerns about animal cruelty in the meat industry. Animal cruelty is clearly a big issue, but not everyone in the meat industry is being cruel to their animals. We should be cautious about how we generalize, and for those who do want to eat meat, you should definitely consider how the food you're eating was treated. Just because something will eventually be killed for food doesn't mean that making it miserable during its living life is okay. There are farms where animals are allowed a normal and healthy lifestyle, and for my money, that does impact the quality of the meat.
  4. Growth hormones and antibiotics. I don't know the science to any of this, but clearly, when you start adding in foreign substances into anything, you are polluting it and changing the quality of it. For plants, the issue is in GMOs. With meat, it means you should look at the packaging of what you are buying and decide if you want to roll the dice on if dairy or meat that has been exposed to these things and how that may or may not influence your health.
  5. You live in a region with lots of edible plant-life. With a growing push towards eating local, I am curious how this will challenge the philosophy of being vegetarian. Vegetarianism in some cultures grew up out of areas with an abundance of edible plants. As I mentioned earlier, in other locations, this is not a possibility. So if we move towards eating local, I am curious as to what that would do to someone espousing the philosophy of vegetarianism or veganism. Remember, not everyone lives in California or some other breadbasket. And additionally, the eating local makes a lot of sense and takes us back to our historical roots. It takes a lot of energy and pollution to ship quinoa, bananas, and other foods into the U.S., U.K. Canada, and other parts of the world. It's not necessarily a healthy thing for the Earth. It's probably not going away either, so whether food is local is another consideration for you.
  6. Confusing excessive meat-consumption with minimal meat-consumption. Not everyone needs to eat 16 OZ steaks. In fact, a little meat can go a long way. The vegetarian and vegan ideologies can get into extremist positions that say eat no meat or no animal byproducts at all, respectively. Some fish once a week versus three types of meat consumed every day are very different ways of including meat in your diet. Another issue with meat is that those animals place a lot of demands on the environment, so with water and other issues growing globally, there is something to consider around the choice of if you are eating meat and how much to consider.

Trusting Your Body

I've outlined these issues because I think a lot of people make a bunch of assumptions when making a choice towards the above diets. I also want to show some of the philosophical problems because some people are trying to make themselves seem a little "holier than thou" for not eating meat. I don't have a position on veganism or vegetarianism. What I care about is that you learn to trust your body and do what's right for you.

And oh, let's talk about GMOs before I wrap up.

The Great GMO Experiment

We have no idea what we are doing. Playing God by genetically manipulating our food is rolling the dice. Maybe it won't matter. Maybe it will. How can any of us possibly know at this point? Health issues can manifest quickly or slowly over generations. Which means that many of us that started eating GMO foods without knowing it are all officially human guinea pigs in a big social experiment for the foreseeable future. It's a little arrogant to think that we can have done enough science to analyze GMOs because you can't analyze every aspect of a human body. We're still learning about the human body, and we've been studying this thing for centuries.

On top of that, we have the issue with pesticides that have given rise to the organic label. Who knows how much pesticides leach into different foods and the impact that has on people? All organic and non-GMO mean is that the food is normal--it's the way it has been for millennia. Personally, I'd like the food to get labelled the other way--Genetically Altered and Covered in Bug Toxins Peaches. Or it could be Mutated and Drenched in Insect Poison Apples. Let's see who would buy that food then.

Your Choice, Your Body, Your Health

But I don't intend to give you a position on the rightness of this either. Instead, I can only encourage that in the face of all these issues, it is more important than ever to get healthy and start listening to your body. See what feels good to you. Let your body guide your decisions while you face all these other considerations in the supermarket. As I said, the supermarket is a tremendous gift. To be able to have the vast selection of food right at our fingertips is phenomenal. But as things have gone, we now have more to consider, and your body should be the primary guiding instrument in those decisions, not an ideology that says this is right or wrong.

However, as I said, you have to clean out the instrument to get accurate readings, and that's why those diets and different food ideologies (I could have mentioned Ayurveda too--that's another popular spiritual one) can help you get started. But they are no substitute for your active engagement with your inner knowing and the amazing body intelligence you already have. Then you can find out what the spiritual right way is for you and only you to eat.
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